Shady Ladies through the Years

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

“Sur le Boulevard” Louis Valtat

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 Death Visits a Bawdy House (Small) (1)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.

Death Visits a Bawdy House—a new Charlotte Edgerton Mystery

When Charlotte Edgerton moves to New York City from staid Boston in 1843, she finds the crowds on Broadway and the attractions of P.T. Barnum’s new American Museum thrilling. She is young, idealistic, and in love. The future looks bright for Death Visits a Bawdy House (Small)herself and her devoted Daniel. But when first one and then another of the glamorous “sporting girls” who work in the city’s famous brothels is murdered, Charlotte becomes aware of the darkness that lurks behind the bright glow of the city.

In a city where abolitionists are not popular and suspicion of free blacks runs high, the arrest of a black man for the crimes stirs high emotions. Charlotte and Daniel discover even police can be prejudiced, politicians are not always honest, and kindness can lead to danger. When a ruthless murderer tricks her into becoming a prisoner, Charlotte must rely on her wits to save herself and a helpless child.

I am happy to announce that my second Charlotte Edgerton Mystery book has been published and is now available in print and Kindle format at Death Visits a Bawdy House paints a picture of New York City as it was in the years before the Civil War. Young men and women from the country were flooding into the city looking for jobs and trying to build new lives, but often what they found was poverty and corruption.

While I was researching background for this novel, I learned a great deal about life in New York during the tumultuous 1840s. New York was becoming the commercial center of America, but the commerce depended on a supply of cheap labor. Women especially were expected to work long hours as milliners or dressmakers at wages so low they often could not pay for a room in a respectable boarding house. If they took a job as a servant in one of the wealthy houses, they often had to fend off the advances of their employers or other men in the family. No wonder that many young girls envied the prostitutes who strolled up Broadway flaunting their beautiful clothes. Were those women better or worse off than the married women who struggled to take care of their husbands and children in the over-crowded slums of the city? That’s not always an easy question to answer.

I have been surprised to see in the past week or so that the question of whether prostitutes should be treated as criminals, victims, or independent sex workers has come up again in the news. At its world conference this month, Amnesty International, a global human rights organization, passed a resolution proclaiming that Sex Workers Rights Are Human Rights. After two years of studying the issue, Amnesty International has decided to call on governments to decriminalize consensual sex between adults. That’s a radical position and there has been lively discussion and much opposition to this decision. Nothing about the issue is clear cut. I certainly find it difficult to decide what we should do about sex workers. How can we protect women against sex trafficking, but still allow them to choose to be sex workers if they wish? It is fascinating to me that the question that was a lively discussion back in the 1840s is still being debated now.

But we don’t have to spend all of our time debating great issues. Take some time off and read the story about Charlotte and Daniel and their life in New York City—Death Visits a Bawdy House.

The Sporting Life in old New York

Despite the attempts of reformers to keep Americans pure and more moral than their European ancestors, life during the 1830s and 1840s was leading many young men and women into temptation. The growth of cities and the lack of new land for farming, meant that many young men had to leave the villages where they had grown up so that they could make a living as clerks, storekeepers, lawyers or doctors. As the young men left the countryside, opportunities for girls to find husband who could support them grew fewer, so many of them left too. They moved into cities to work as servants, milliners or seamstresses. With so many unattached young people unsupervised by parents or employers, it was natural that many of them would fall into unapproved activities like gambling or prostitution. Cities, especially New York and New Orleans, soon became famous for the number and attractiveness of their prostitutes.

One of the most attractive and popular prostitutes in New York was Helen Jewett, who had changed her name from Dorcas Doyen, and moved Helen_Jewett,_sketchfrom Maine down to the city. She was a clever woman who formed strong attachments to her clients through her skill in writing letters and building up a feeling of intimacy. She attended the theater, an excellent place to meet men, and pursued those who attracted her. When you contrast her life with the lives of virtuous women of the time who were restricted to their own homes and their own husbands, you can’t help wondering whether Helen’s choice was a good one. While most women had many children to care for and were in charge of managing a house and servants and keeping their husband happy, Helen could afford to hire servants of her own and let them do the housekeeping. The woman who owned the brothel saw to meals and refreshments and Helen was able to socialize with the other prostitutes and with the men who visited them.

Helen might have lived her life successfully, probably becoming a brothel keeper after she grew tired of being a prostitute, except for the unfortunate accident of arousing the wrath of one of her clients. She was murdered one night and charges were brought against a young man, Richard Robinson, who was her friend and lover. The scandal of the trial made newspapermen happy and increased the sales and prestige of many of the local newspapers. Readers across the country were happy to read about poor Helen. Was she really a temptress who led young men astray? Or was Robinson a scoundrel who took advantage of a young woman who had been seduced into a life of sin? You can find the full account of the events in Patricia Cline Cohen’s book The Murder of Helen Jewett, or a brief outline of the plot in the ever-useful Wikipedia.

No matter what form you choose to read her story, it’s worth spending some time thinking about the life she led and the reasons for it. She had the usual unfortunate family background of an alcoholic father and a mother who died while Helen was young. You can explain her life on the basis of her unfortunate upbringing, but that is hardly the full story. Women who chose to make a living by selling sex are usually boxed into a closed category—a pitiful victim or a predatory stalker—but each one of them has her own story to tell. Reading about Helen Jewett is one of the few chances we get to read and ponder the life of one individual who chose an unconventional path. Perhaps we should do that more often.


Who was Helen Jewett and what was her profession?

Prostitution is one of the oldest professions in the world but aside from stories about the horrors of human trafficking we seldom hear much about it. Prostitution has flourished throughout history, but the individuals who work in the sex trade mostly keep a low profile. Even today

Sex worker statue in Amsterdam.
Sex worker statue in Amsterdam.

there are very few places except Amsterdam where sex workers are acknowledged and even honored by a public statue. In past centuries, prostitution was a topic often whispered about but seldom mentioned in public.

English majors may have read the Victorian novels that portray “fallen women” as outcasts aware of their pariah status. Remember Nancy in Dickens’ Oliver Twist who described herself as an “infamous creature” and is brought to tears of joy when a “respectable” woman says a kind word to her? Dickens was sympathetic to the problems of prostitutes, but he still portrayed them as beyond the reach of normal life and in need of rescue. Was 19th century prostitution really like that? Was it populated only by outcasts who had been seduced and betrayed by a man and by wantons who had an abnormal desire for sex? Or is it possible that it was a reasonable career choice for some women?

Recently I came across a book about Helen Jewett, a young prostitute who apparently lived a comfortable life in New York City during the 1830s. She was suddenly swept into prominence by a violent crime that made her famous throughout the East, but she has long since vanished from history. Her death, of course, was tragic, but it is only because she died violently that we have learned about how the sex trade in New York operated during the decades before the Civil War.

The first surprise for many of us is to learn that prostitution was not illegal in New York, as it was in most states, at the time. The police did not care much about people’s private sex lives, although they might arrest women for disorderly conduct or vagrancy. Keeping a brothel was illegal, but the crime was not often prosecuted. New York was growing very quickly during these years and many young men poured into the city seeking jobs. Most people accepted the idea that young men would seek out sex and that the women who provided it were a normal part of it city’s population. Prostitution was not defended by respectable men, and middle-class women were assumed not to even know about it, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that it actually became illegal.

All of this was the background for the story of Helen Jewett, who moved from Maine to New York and joined the ranks of those women earning their living in the sex trade. I will write more about her in my next post, but if you want the full story, you might want to read Patricia Cline Cohen’s well-researched book The Murder of Helen Jewett.