In Paris this autumn, one of the major art exhibits is “Splendor and Misery: Images of Prostitution 1850-1910,” at the Musee d’Orsay. At this exhibit people lucky enough to get to Paris can see how artists viewed some of the women who worked in the sex trade during the 19th century. There is no lack of pictures because almost all of the great artists of the period
painted prostitutes. A New York Times article quotes Richard Thomson, a curator of the exhibition:
“Why was prostitution such a big theme for artists? There was the sexual aspect, of course. But there was another reason. The city was slippery. Everything was speeding up, becoming more commercial, more ambiguous, more of a spectacle.
The same questions were coming up in American cities during the 1800s. Although many Americans thought of their new country as pure and free of the moral decay of Europe, prostitution has been a part of the country since its beginnings. During the gold rush days in California, fancy ladies were just as prominent as the hopeful miners. Witness this popular 19th century San Francisco song:
The miners came in forty-nine,
The whores in fifty-one;
And when they got together
They produced the native son
Even though prostitution has been around throughout recorded history, societies still have a difficult time coming to grips with it. Why do women become prostitutes? Is it because they are poor and can’t find any other job? Or because they are
too lazy to take an honest job? Or are they victims of cruel abusers or criminals who force them into prostitution? No one knows all the answers, but one fact is clear—neither America nor any other country has ever completely eliminated prostitution. During the 1840s, when society was changing quickly and thousands of young people moved from farms to cities, many women found prostitution their only way to forge a life for themselves.
That’s why when I started writing my second Charlotte Edgerton mystery, I decided to focus on life in “Sin City”, otherwise known as New York. When Charlotte moves there to take up a teaching job in a school for the children of freed slaves, she discovers that life in the city is filled with excitement and dangers she had never faced in rural Massachusetts. And as she gets to know some of the young women who live in the brothels that line the streets near Broadway, she gains a new respect for their struggles and their strengths. She and her fiancé, Daniel, pursue the evildoer who stalks these ladies of the night and come to understand some of the complexities of crime and survival in a fast-changing society.