Ladies of the night: History of prostitution in the mining days
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove sections that did not provide proper attribution.
It really wasn’t uncommon for men to leave wives and families at home and head to Colorado to seek their fortunes in gold. Men felt that it would be a short stay — they would make their fortunes and return home. Letters told just how much the men missed family life, but with so few women living in the mining towns and camps, men retired to gambling houses and saloons — bordellos and cribs.
Most of the women in those establishments saw prostitution purely as an economic opportunity; others saw it as the lowest moral degradation. Thus, women in the mining camps and towns were either “good” or “bad.” The bad were found in the hurdy-gurdy houses, bawdy houses and dance halls; the good were not allowed in any of them. A dichotomy existed — reverence for the good women and contempt for the bad. The good women worked to outlaw drinking, gambling and prostitution. The bad played up to the male ego; they kept the liquor flowing at the saloons and between dances at the dance halls. They waited nightly in the cribs and bordellos.
Prostitution flourished wherever men willingly paid for it. The average visit cost between $0.50 and $10, with the price depending largely on the availability of women in a given camp or town.
Although ages varied, ranging from as young as 13 to as old as 50, the average prostitute was about 21 years old. No matter her age, she hoped to make money fast, marry well and become socially acceptable.
The lure of prostitution
What pulled women into prostitution? The most often cited reasons included poverty, boredom, youthful naiveté and indebtedness. Sometimes women answered ads for domestic work that promised high pay but found themselves in brothels instead with no means of escape.
Despite the stories of rich young men visiting the exquisite madam’s house populated with women dressed in expensive finery, the usual visitor to a prostitute was a man of lower economic status — the ordinary laborer and miner who had little to offer financially.
The prostitute had many names: soiled dove, lady of the evening, jeweled bird, fallen angel, shady lady, that other woman, lady of the lamplight, frail sister, scarlet woman, painted hussy, fancy girl and many other less flattering appellations.
The term “red-light” has long been used to describe areas where prostitution flourished. In the United States, its origins date from the days when railroad men left their red signal lanterns outside the brothels or cribs while they were inside — so they could be found in an emergency. Thus as the railroads crossed the country, red light districts sprang up alongside railroad tracks, where numerous saloons already existed.
A definite hierarchy existed to prostitution. At the top were the madam and the women with a genteel air about them who inhabited the highly decorated houses. On the lowest rung of the ladder were the women who worked out of the two-room cribs, each with a small bedroom and kitchen, clustered on a side street near the saloons. Often called “boarders,” another euphemism for prostitutes at that time, they were the ones who lived and worked on the “line,” which was usually found parallel to the main street and one block away from it.
Prostitutes who inhabited cribs such as those in Breckenridge did not get rich plying their trade. Money came in with each customer but left just as quickly. They faced living expenses, too. They needed to buy food, fuel to heat their rooms during long winter nights and clothing, as well as perhaps pay rent for the crib or fines to the local sheriff as were collected in Breckenridge and Frisco. If a camp fell on hard times, customers moved on. So, too, did the prostitutes.
In order to disguise their identity or elude the law, many of the women assumed fake names and nicknames. Some names reflected ethnic origin or place of residence: China Mary, French Erma or Denver Darling. Others played on her talents: Few Clothes Molly or Featherlegs. Some names were not complimentary: Two Ton Tilly or Dancing Heifer. There were Dirty Neck Nell, Greasy Gert and Rowdy Kate. Sometimes a prostitute planning to move on bribed the local newspaper editor to print an obituary of her. Thus she could move on with an all-new identity.
According to the 1880 census, six prostitutes lived in the same house just off Main Street in Breckenridge. The census enumerator recorded six women “boarders” residing in Kokomo in 1880. The special 1885 Colorado census recorded six prostitutes living at various locations throughout the county.
Suicide was the most common way a prostitute retired from her job — if she survived the hazards of the profession. Suicide was so common it barely made the newspapers. The Summit County Journal on Oct. 16, 1886, noted: “It is reported one of the frail sisters of the town tried to shuffle off this mortal coil last Monday night via the morphine route but did not succeed.” Drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning, both intentional and accidental, were common. So was murder. If suicide, murder or drug abuse did not befall a working girl, she could always succumb to disease or illness.
Accidents happened. The Breckenridge newspaper editor reported that “Reine better known as Frenchy, was accidentally struck in the eye with a piece of rock, a few days ago, luckily the organ was not seriously injured, the wound was painful and the eye is still weak.”
As early as 1882, Recen, on May 13, outlawed bawdy houses and prostitution. The town levied fines of $5 to $100 for a bawdy house; prostitution earned fines of $10 to $25. Breckenridge officially outlawed prostitution in 1890, when town leaders at their regular meeting on Jan. 16 passed an ordinance approving a fine of not less than $5 or more than $200 for anyone operating, living in or patronizing a house of prostitution. Even so, prostitution continued.
In Frisco in 1883, the town board instructed the marshal to collect from all females, frequenters and inmates of dance halls, saloons and any house known to be kept for the purpose of assignations, the sum of $5 per month. The tax from the girls of town was collected and applied to the marshal’s salary for December. According to the minutes, the amount collected totaled $9. Yet, Frisco boasted that there were no undesirables in town: no lawyers, gambles, ladies of the night or ministers.
Not everyone paid the fee willingly. In the Dec. 11, 1886, issue of the Summit County Journal is this item: “Soon thereafter a frail sister came to the front for refusing to pay a borough imposed license, but after incurring a few dollars expense at the last moment she weakened and the case dropped. The fine was paid.”
Some prostitutes had a soft spot. In Breckenridge, a retiring madam agreed to sell her house to a large family with several children. The husband succumbed to flu in 1918 before the transaction could be completed, leaving the widow destitute. After the funeral, the madam quietly surrendered the deed without expecting a penny, with no one ever the wiser to her benevolent act.
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