Continued from history of sex work part 1 –
The Wild West
Now the Wild West definitely lives up to its name with some truly bizarre happenings surrounding brothels and madams of the time. First and foremost, women who worked in brothels were generally seen to be wearing the customary white “brothel gown” of which brought on the term “soiled doves”, this dress was similar to that of a nightgown.
Six of Dawson City’s Prostitutes Posing for a Photograph
in Dawson, Yukon, Canada c. 1900
With the ratio of men to women being at approximately 3:2 within the west, brothels had a consistent and reliable customer base throughout the whole year. Although working in one didn’t equate to a steady income with these establishments designed to be nearly inescapable for the girls working within as the owners created competition and gave very little compensation. There was also tremendous amounts of racial discrimination during this time so the segregation and fetishisation of specific races was very common and left completely unquestioned, with the French working girls often times completely separated from the others as they were stereotyped to be cleaner and have a broader knowledge of sex.
In contrast to the prostitutes themselves, madams of this time often became very wealthy and were heavily competitive with each other. A particularly entertaining instance of this rivalry between madams is seen in El Paso’s Public Arch Shooting, where Etta Clark shot Alice Abbot in the groin, the women were madams of competing brothels located just across the street from each other. The argument spurred when one of the women working for Abbot, Bessie Colvin, tried to leave her employ and start working under Clark instead, when Abbot was alerted to this she went th Clarks establishment in a rage and punched her in the face as soon as she opened the door, in response to this Clark turned, grabbed a gun and shot Abbot in the groin. Now what’s truly the kicker of this event is that Clark never faced any repercussions for shooting Abbot as the town thought it was just too comedic that a petite 5 foot woman had done such a thing to Abbot who was a whole foot taller and a good 50 kgs heavier.
Now before we triapse into the modern history of sex work I wanted to share the stories of few of the most famous and infamous sex workers to have ever been:
Madame du Barry
Born as Jeanne Becu, Madame du Barry led a real rags to riches to well deserved execution story, she became most well known for her time as the mistress of King Louis XV after catching his eye during a quick trip to Versailles. But before becoming funded by the monarch she worked as a mistress to the Parisian elite under Jean-Baptiste du Barry, and was even married to his brother. Otherwise known as the last royal mistress of France, Madame du Barry wasn’t the most well liked woman in the room at any time and even Marie Antoinette was known to hate her, banishing her as soon as she became queen.
After the death of King Louis XV Jeanne was exiled and lived in the countryside entertaining two lovers of which had no idea the other existed until one (Henry Seymour), broke up with her by sending her a painting of himself with the note “leave me alone” written along the bottom, essentially being the first man ever to end a relationship via snapchat.
Now, you might be questioning why I labelled Jeanne’s execution as “well deserved”, during her time as King Louis XV mistress, and after this, she kept a young boy, Zamor, as her slave/plaything, this of course came back to bite her in the crinoline when he testified against her during the French Revolution and she was charged with treason and executed via guillotine.
Before Ching Shih became the influence for Pirates of the Carribean’s Mistress Cheng, and one of the most successful pirates to have ever lived she worked as a prostitute in her hometown. She started her buccaneering when she married her first husband Zheng Yi, a pirate, and together they amassed a fleet consisting of hundreds of ships, sailed by tens of thousands of men. After Zheng Yi died Ching Shih took complete control of this fleet and it took several countries to take her down, of which she negotiated a truce with to spare herself and the vast majority of those sailing under her. She then returned to her hometown and lived out her days running a gambling house until the ripe age of 69.
Mary Ann Conklin, lovingly referred to as Mother Damnable due to her ability to curse in several languages and willingness to do so, was the long standing manager of Felker House and went on to add a brothel to the second level of the building of which spurred the transition of her title to Madame Damnable. She became so well known that people started to refer to the Felker House as “The Conklin House” or more simply “Mother Damnable’s”.
As much as a character as we can assume she was, what really sets her apart is her death, or more specifically her exhumation. Which is where we see things really get interesting. She died and was buried in 1873, in the Seattle Cemetery which was then later turned into Denny Park so in 1884 all the graves, including hers, were removed to be relocated. When they went to remove her coffin it took 6 men to raise it and when the lid was removed it was found that her corpse had “turned to stone” with all her features still intact. A lil bit odd if I do say so myself.
We hope you enjoyed the history of sex workers and even in Australia the fitzgerald report.