the tragedy of prostitution -- 12/11/17

Today's selection -- from Cattle Kingdom by Christopher Knowlton. The tragedy of prostitution in the old West:

"For [a cowboy at the end of a long and dangerous cattle drive], the women were a cattle town's greatest attrac­tion. In a saloon at the peak of the cattle era, a cowboy was likely to encounter three varieties of 'ladies'. At the top of the pecking order were the hurdy-gurdy girls, the professional dancing girls; they were usually poor but respectable farm girls from the Hesse region of Germany who traveled around the western states and Canada, ac­companied by a chaperone. They were available for dances but were definitely not to be solicited for sex. Next were the ordinary danc­ing girls, found in both saloons and dancehalls, and cowboys could pay them for the privilege of a dance (twenty-five cents a twirl); as a rule, these girls were not in the sex trade. Finally, and most preva­lent, were the saloon girls, who were almost always prostitutes.

19th century graffiti in Cripple Creek, Colorado.

"If the cowboy was interested in sex, he faced a variety of choices because there were prostitutes at every price point. The best dressed and most expensive were the parlor-house girls found in the brothels, which were usually run by madams who themselves were former prostitutes. Saloon girls fell somewhere in the middle in terms of affordability, and the least expensive and by all accounts the least attractive -- by cowboy standards anyway -- were the 'crib girls' who occupied dilapidated one-room shacks on the outskirts of town. They were often older prostitutes or those afflicted with alcoholism or drug addiction (usually to laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol), or women of ethnicities deemed less sexually desirable, such as Native Americans and Chinese immigrants. An encounter with a prostitute might cost a cowboy anywhere from one to five dollars, depending on the class of prostitute.

"Most of the prostitutes were shipped in for the summer season from St. Louis, Omaha, Chicago, and St. Paul. Others moved from town to town, following the trail herds north and finding work in saloons wherever they could. As [cowboy] Teddy Blue recalled,

Mary Katharine Haroney, better
known as Big Nose Kate,
began a relationship with one of the deadliest
gunslingers, Doc Holliday,
which lasted until his death.

'Some of those girls in Miles City were famous, like Cowboy Annie and Connie, the Cowboy Queen. Connie had a $250 dress embroidered with all the different brands -- they said there wasn't an outfit from the Yellowstone down to the Platte, and over in the Dakotas too, that couldn't find its brand on that dress ... We all had our favorites after we got acquainted. We'd go into town and marry a girl for a week, take her to breakfast and dinner and supper, to be with her all the time ... I suppose those things would shock a lot of respectable people. But we wasn't respectable and we didn't pretend to be, which was the only way we was different from some others ... If I'd have been a woman done what I done, I'd have ended up in a sporting house.'

"Teddy Blue insisted that most of the cowboys treated the women well: 'better than some men treat their wives.' He mentioned exam­ples of cowboys who abused prostitutes and how their peers ostra­cized these men. Though this may have been the case, it is also fair to say that Teddy Blue's examination of the plight of these women went only so far. Many 'soiled doves,' whose average age was about twenty-three, were 'fallen' women, abandoned by boyfriends or families, or widowed and left destitute, with no other means of earning a living. Others, as remains the case today, were products of dysfunctional families or had suffered abuse as children.

Belle Brezing is said to have been the
model for Belle Watling in the classic
novel "Gone With the Wind."

"Their work entailed many perils. Subject to the whims and po­tential violence of the men, they faced the constant threat of dis­ease -- and not only sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis, popularly known as 'the calamity' in light of the poor prospects for a cure, or gonorrhea, which was equally prevalent. Tuberculo­sis, potentially a death sentence, was another risk. Others included pregnancy, almost invariably culminating in a dangerous abortion. Rubber condoms had become widely available in the late 1850s but were still relatively expensive, as were early versions of the dia­phragm. Despite these options, many prostitutes struggled to get by as best they could by using the rhythm and 'withdrawal' methods. By some estimates, 20 percent became pregnant at some point in their career.

"Prostitutes had little or no chance for social advancement. Few cowboys would seriously consider marrying one, and likely could not afford to anyway. Escape from prostitution was almost out of the question. Those few who did manage to marry often ended up with saloon owners or men who pimped them. The rest ended their careers in the cribs and saw their lifespan shortened by poverty, despair, and often alcoholism or drug addiction. As Michael Rutter put it in his history of prostitution in the West, 'This line of work never had a good retirement plan.'"



Christopher Knowlton


Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Copyright 2017 by Christopher Knowlton


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