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One story of her background, based on what she told an enamored reporter from the Transcript in , is that she was the daughter of a major general and had been seduced while at boarding school.
Another version, more generally accepted, is that she was the daughter of Welsh immigrant parents, a mechanic father who drank and a mother who died when Jewett was about ten years old.
At age thirteen Jewett went into service in the home of Judge Nathan Weston of Augusta, Maine, where she lived for four years. She was sent to school during that period and was said to have been a very proficient student with a taste for literature.
One source stated she spoke several languages and enjoyed quoting lines of verse from French, Italian, and English poets. At the end of her years of service in the Weston home, seventeen-year-old Jewett apparently had a liaison with a young man, an episode that preceded her move into a life of prostitution.
She may have worked first as a prostitute in Portland, Maine, then moved to a Mrs. Like other prostitutes of the time, Jewett was mobile, changing her place of employment periodically. Following a disagreement with Mrs. Berry she moved to Mrs.
Although Jewett was an ordinary prostitute, she lived and worked in well-situated houses, near the top of the prostitution hierarchy, and thus she cannot be considered representative of the majority of prostitutes, who were poor and practiced the trade on a casual basis.
Jewett appeared to be popular with both colleagues and clients. Her earnings also provided her with sufficient personal economic resources to travel, attend the theater, dress elegantly, make generous gifts to her friends, and even lend money on occasion. Like most prostitutes, Jewett had contact with the local police. On one occasion, she was brought into police headquarters because the brothel was raided, but most of her dealings with the law came about because Jewett brought charges against other parties.
She brought charges of assault against an overzealous suitor named Laraty, who had accosted her in the lobby of a public theater by throwing his arms around her and kissing her. She claimed that he also kicked her. Berry, her brothel madam at the time, she sued a client named Boyd who in turn countersued Jewett and Berry. Clearly, Jewett did not fear that notoriety as a prostitute would cause her problems with law officials, and in fact.
Helen Jewett at the Theatre. One newspaper commented that she was seen frequently at the post office, where her postal bill was as great as that of some business firms in the city. After her death the police confiscated from her bedroom a trunk containing approximately ninety letters, some of which were introduced into evidence in the trial.
Communication with people from different cities or different stations in life brought new experiences to Jewett, allowing her to escape mentally the restrictions and debasements of the world of prostitution. Correspondence with men she admired and liked allowed her to enjoy their companionship without the sexual and physical considerations that would be invoked during a personal visit in the brothel. One customer, Edward, who wished for a closer relationship with Jewett, noted this distancing technique at the end of one of his letters: While her talent enabled her to communicate with interesting people on a level different from the sexual, it also made her aware of the limitations of the life she led: The murder deprives us of the knowledge of how her full life might have been lived, of the public and private circumstances she would have faced and choices she would have made.
We will return to her story for insights into the world of prostitution, but for a story of those missing years and missing experiences we must turn to the stories of many other New Yorkers—both the women who practiced prostitution and the other community members who interacted with them. Unprecedented urban growth and industrialization had led to overcrowding, unemployment, and poverty on a scale previously unimagined.
After the War of , the increasing influx of European immigrants brought to American cities strange customs and sometimes different languages as well as new political influences that challenged the hegemony of the propertied classes. Urban housing for the poor was both scarce and wretched, and city dwellers became accustomed to large numbers of vagrants wandering the streets. Sanitation was primitive, and mortality high.
These changes in American life were also transforming basic social institutions such as the family. Marriage was no longer a self-contained economic partnership, as men, and often women and children, went to work outside the home.
The change in family structure. Many nineteenth-century women, however, were able to move beyond such a narrowly defined or idealized role. Among the many social ills that marked life in a rapidly changing America after —poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, disease—prostitution often became the symbol of what was perceived as the social and moral disintegration of society.
The leading figure in bringing the issue of prostitution to the center of public debate in New York was John R. McDowall, the reformer featured alongside Jewett in the April 11, , edition of the Herald. He had arrived in New York in the summer of , as a student intern working as a volunteer missionary for the American Tract Society. The son of a minister, McDowall was born in in Canada.
He attended Amherst, Union or Sche-. While at Princeton in , McDowall was active in a number of evangelical and missionary societies, and in he and his brother, also a divinity student, volunteered for missionary work among the lost souls in the poor districts of New York City. The brothers spent their summer in the Five Points area, visiting crowded tenements, lecturing inhabitants, and distributing tracts and Bibles. They also began visiting the many brothels of the neighborhood, leading prayers with inhabitants and customers and exhorting them to abandon their lives of sin.
At the end of his internship, McDowall, feeling he could not leave the work he had begun, remained in New York to continue as a missionary on his own. The Society opened a House of Refuge where penitent harlots could be taught respectable ways and skills to support themselves in the community.
McDowall and the Magdalen Society were verbally assailed, and some members of the society, such as Arthur Tappan, received letters threatening mob destruction of their. Reforemer Preaching to Prostitutes. After several months of harassment, the society succumbed, its members disbanded, and the refuge was closed. Refusing to retreat under pressure, McDowall published a second report, Magdalen Facts , which defended his actions,.
He also continued preaching on his own, even though he was officially reprimanded by the Presbytery, or church hierarchy. He also alarmed some citizens by threatening to expose publicly the names of men who frequented brothels and seduced innocent girls. Either because the threat intimidated the opposition or because the list never materialized, McDowall managed to avoid another public outburst for a few months. Throughout the controversy McDowall had continued to receive the unofficial support of a group of women who in February formed the Female Benevolent Society, which hired McDowall as its agent and the manager of its house of refuge.
He and his followers especially enjoyed descending upon brothels in the early hours of the morning while the residents and their clients were still in bed, startling them with loud hymns and Bible recitations in the hope that by disrupting the activities of the houses they would eventually break up the brothels. McDowall spent a year defending his actions in print and in person, until. But McDowall was a broken man. Exhausted and depressed from his conflict with the church and the pain of a lifelong knee ailment, he became sick with tuberculosis and died in poverty later that year, at the young age of thirty-five.
Despite his early death, McDowall had significant impact. He had succeeded in focusing widespread public attention on an occupation the public had previously ignored or quietly accepted, and he had helped raise concern about the issue to the point that anti-prostitution and moral reform became a major thrust in the evangelical movement that swept New York and the Northeast for over a decade. Moral reformers were not alone in rediscovering prostitution during the s. The issue was broached by writers from several different perspectives.
Short essays and book-length sketches guided readers on fictional tours through the streets of poverty and dens of vice of the urban underworld. Still another group of social critics, in both Europe and the United States, represented a new breed of researcher-writers who broached public problems in the manner of scientific investigators, though their writings were never totally devoid of moralistic overtones.
These researchers noted the detrimental effects of prostitution on public health and the public economy, treating prostitution largely as an aspect of the filthy dehumanized world of the urban poor. Their studies included personal interviews with large numbers of prostitutes, supplemented by records from police, detention facilities, and hospitals. Because prostitutes were associated with the rapid spread of the dreaded disease syphilis, most of these researchers argued that the best way to control venereal disease would be to regulate prostitution.
Though all of the literary sources on prostitution provide information about the lives of nineteenth-century prostitutes and the society in which. One of the earliest such studies was that of A. Parent-Duchatelet, who published De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris in and whose research methodology became the model for later writers in Europe and the United States. He also interviewed and further observed a smaller group of these women to develop a detailed profile of the typical French prostitute, including her reasons for entering the profession.
Other European investigators, such as William Tait in Edinburgh and William Acton in London, attempted similar studies of prostitution in their respective cities. In the United States, physician Charles Smith wrote in on the causes and effects of prostitution in New York City, covering many of the same topics as Parent, but drawing conclusions only from impressionistic data he garnered in his medical practice among prostitutes rather than from hard data collected in surveys and interviews.
Because he believed prostitution was a proved necessity but a drain on the public economy, he called for a system of regulation. The most extensive study of nineteenth-century American prostitution was published in by Dr. In the Board of Governors of the Almshouse had appointed Sanger to examine the extent of venereal disease among the poor in New York City, but Sanger had enlarged his assignment into a history of prostitution and the resulting social pollution in New York.
He directed the local police in administering a questionnaire to two thousand prostitutes throughout the city and submitted a questionnaire to the inspector of each police ward, or precinct, asking about the extent of prostitution in his district. Each inspector was asked for information on the number of brothels, assignation houses, dancing saloons, and liquor stores where prostitutes congregated, and the number of individual prostitutes in the district.
At the conclusion of his study, Sanger, like Smith and their European counterparts, made a strong plea for state. The prostitutes interviewed, selected by the local police, were probably the most well known in each ward, and may not have represented a cross-section of New York City prostitutes.
The 2, women surveyed included only two fifteen-year-old girls, and none who were younger, even though police and newspapers repeatedly noted that many female children were engaged in prostitution. Because Sanger used public officials to administer his survey, it is likely that some women gave false answers to certain questions or gave responses they thought the surveyors wanted to hear. Sanger offered New Yorkers a methodical accounting of the numbers of prostitutes, and his data on the extent as well as the causes, conditions, and consequences of prostitution helped fuel the public.
Primary source material is limited, since prostitutes left few written records. Nonetheless, surprising quantities of personal and economic records exist that allow not only a critical analysis of the data and conclusions given by Sanger and other investigators but also a glimpse of the private lives of prostitutes.
Written over a period of two years, from early until a few weeks before her murder, the Jewett letters are a direct reflection of her personal and professional life while in the midst of it, offering information about her associations. In conjunction with other data, the letters deepen our understanding of the private lives, personal relationships, and sensibilities of New York City prostitutes in the nineteenth century.
Although the term prostitution has sometimes been used so broadly as to encompass all extramarital sex, and the nineteenth-century data is not always clear about when sexual promiscuity becomes professional prostitution—a judgment that varies in different periods and in different societies according to legal and cultural determinations—in the more strict and common usage of the term a prostitute was a woman who sold sexual favors promiscuously to those who could pay.
In this study, a narrow definition of the term will be used, i. There are no official censuses or registries of New York City prostitutes in the nineteenth century. Although several population censuses list some women as prostitutes, there are many reasons for concluding these figures are incomplete and incorrect.
A woman was not likely to admit her profession to an official government representative, especially when she might practice another profession such as seamstress, milliner, or boardinghouse keeper that was a respectable—and legal—activity. At various times police officials were charged with keeping track of prostitutes and claimed to have records of all houses of prostitution and lists of names of public prostitutes. There are several semi-annual reports by chiefs of police giving total numbers of prostitutes in the city, but these reports probably enumerate only the more.
One suspects as well that police officials tended to underestimate prostitution in response to periodic public outcries about the extent of the vice, which encouraged the police to present themselves as keeping the problem under control.
The only official survey of New York prostitution known to exist is that made by Sanger, which thus becomes the centerpiece for judging other figures. Until , prostitutes were not so much counted or studied as they were hidden away in the back streets of New York and other seaports and large urban centers. Legal pressure was applied to keep prostitutes and brothels obscure, contained in certain areas, and hence as invisible as possible. In New York the Common Council, courts, and groups like a short-lived Magdalen Society founded in periodically had to deal with issues involving prostitutes, but public references to prostitution were infrequent until the McDowall controversy of McDowall estimated that about 5, of the prostitutes were full-time public prostitutes.
He claimed his figures were conservative, but respectable New Yorkers considered them outrageously high and convened a grand jury to produce an independent estimate. The jury reported that even after enumerating every suspicious female in the city as a member of the Sisterhood only 1, prostitutes—one in seventy female New Yorkers—could be identified. The discrepant estimates put forth by McDowall and the grand jury set the pattern for efforts at measuring the incidence of prostitution throughout the period: Counterclaims that the majority of the owners of prostitution houses were pious, worthy, moral, respectable men also persisted.
But by the mids, such discussion caused no outcry; the public had become much more aware of the existence of prostitution through the press, the work of reformers, and the frequent appearance of prostitutes on the public sidewalks, at shops and theaters, and in many neighborhood streets. Although claims that New York had large numbers of prostitutes no longer surprised many citizens, New Yorkers still debated the figures.
This report lists the number of public prostitutes as 2,, or one of every seventy-seven females in the city. Three police reports in the s put forth much lower estimates, reporting as few as 2, prostitutes and no more than 2,, working at approximately brothels.
The highest of these figures, the count of 2, in , identifies one of every females, or less than one percent of the female population, as prostitutes.
Just how low they were is illustrated by arrest reports between and , when prostitution arrests numbered around 6, annually; the official police estimate of 2, prostitutes in the city could be accurate only if each prostitute had been arrested an average of twice each year, which was certainly not the.
Contemporary reports on the scope of prostitution are discussed in Chapter 1 and its notes. For New York City population figures, see U. The police statistics did not go unchallenged.
In , Methodist Bishop Matthew Simpson announced that there were 11, to 12, prostitutes in New York City, a population equal to the number of members of the Methodist Church.
Five years later, the Reverend Dr. Understandably, police estimates of the prostitution population from to were extremely low, while ministers, reformers, and public commentators tended to give exaggerated estimates.
As has been noted, Sanger used the most thorough method of determining the number of. William Sanger, History of Prostitution , Separated by Canal Street, the two wards covered neighborhoods west of lower Broadway that included several streets where prostitution houses were concentrated.
New Yorkers repeatedly commented on the fact that prostitutes, as well as brothels and assignation houses, were dispersed throughout all wards of the city, in both the best and worst neighborhoods, but wards five and eight were recognized as having a significant prostitution population table 2.
A few more brothel keepers in these neighborhoods can be identified by city directories, newspapers, and other sources. Using the census, the average number of residents of prostitution houses in these wards can be calculated, providing a basis for estimating the number of prostitutes likely to live in additional houses known through other records. By this method, one can estimate a brothel-based prostitute population that accounts for 83 percent of the number Sanger found in ward eight and 52 percent of the number he found in ward five table 3.
The most conservative estimates of the s and s indicated that prostitutes represented from 1. If we accept the Sanger percentage as roughly accurate and calculate that percentage of the female population from through in rapidly growing New York, we obtain the following estimate of the number of prostitutes for those years:.
It is likely, however, that the proportion of prostitutes in the female population was not constant but was in fact increasing, especially after The discussion above has compared the number of prostitutes to the number of females of all ages in New York; intuitively, of course, we would suspect that—and in fact, as will be seen below, we are able to confirm that—the vast majority of prostitutes were women in their teenage and young adult years, roughly between the ages of 15 and If we consider that approximately 2 percent of all women in New York were probably prostitutes in the mid-nineteenth century, we might assume that the rate was considerably higher, perhaps 5 to 6 percent, in the age groups most active in the prostitution trade.
When sixteen-year-old George Templeton Strong drove by a brothel where he hoped to catch a glimpse of some of the prostitutes then involved in the notorious Jewett murder trial, he was rewarded by a sighting of thirty-nine-year-old madam Rosina Townsend.
Both because these women had some incentive not to appear conspicuous and because their lives in this era were closely interwoven with that of the respectable community, they were not always readily identifiable, then or now. Yet we can piece together the life stories of a number of these women—some who were obscure, as well as some who gained notoriety.
Townsend and nine other prostitutes were among the dozens of witnesses who testified at the trial. Her real name, she said, was Rebecca Rosana Brown, and she was originally from Castleton, New York, seven miles from Albany, where her parents still lived.
She was married in Castleton, and afterward she and her husband moved to Cincinnati, where he left her for another woman. In she took over her own prostitution establishment at 28 Anthony Street. By then she was using several names: Rosina or Rosannah Thompson or Townsend.
A year later she moved into 41 Thomas Street, a house she managed for the six years preceding the trial. Townsend stated that in the eleven years since her abandonment, she had not seen her husband and did not know if he were alive or dead.
Despite her seemingly secure financial situation, the many threatening letters she received following the murder and trial prompted her to sell her furnishings at auction and relocate.
Her whereabouts became a matter of considerable speculation. One local paper reported she was moving to a residence on Prince Street, to quarters provided by a group of New York merchants who were attempting to persuade her not to reveal their names as customers. It is also possible that in response to her trial-related notoriety she may have continued to live in New York under an assumed name; in any event, her name disappears from New York directories and tax rolls after Coming late to the profession, impoverished, seriously ill, and marginally employed, she became in just ten years a well-off, comfortable, and successful operator.
The Jewett tragedy disrupted her career on Thomas Street, but it did not appear to interfere with her wealth or the comfort and composure that wealth brought her.
Their house offered guests liquor, women, dice, and cards, and Mr. Berry was said to specialize in getting the guests drunk and then robbing them. It was said he did not fear the law because he knew its loopholes and limitations and could always walk away from a court charge for robbery with a profit in his pocket.
A letter from Mrs. After the Jewett notoriety, and freed from an extravagant and trouble-making husband, she continued a long, stable career. Another madam whose career spanned many years of New York history was Adeline or Adelia or Adelaide Miller, also known as Adeline Furman, who survived and flourished despite some notable personal and legal attacks. Both the and censuses list her age as 70, so by that time in her life she may have quit counting the years.
In the early part of her prostitution career in New York the s , she used the name Furman, and she was known by both Furman and Miller in the s. During this decade she ran several prostitution houses simultaneously, under the name of Furman at one address and Miller at others. From the s to she is usually listed in sources as Miller. Like other prostitutes, Miller changed addresses several times in her career.
From her first appearance in city directories in through to the mids, she was listed at six different residences. In , sources note she was in charge of at least three houses, which she rented; using female managers, she apparently ran several prostitution operations simultaneously. Brown was managing a second house for Miller, on Mott Street, and Miller herself was overseeing the third house, on Reade Street.
In the early s Miller operated a brothel at Duane Street for about three years and then moved to Church Street. Miller claimed the plaintiff had gone back on a promise to let her pay off the debt in weekly installments, but the plaintiff said she instead had tried to settle the debt by giving him an old printing press of hers.
Miller was ordered to pay her debt. By the mid- s, Miller appeared to have improved her relationship with the police. Police investigator Robert Taylor mentioned in his diary at least five visits to her brothel seeking information about various cases on which he was working. For a while it seemed she also had improved her image in the press. After Miller was unable to dissuade the girl, she locked her up overnight and took her to the police the following morning, and the girl was saved from ruin by being sent to the Home for the Friendless.
A few weeks later the Police Gazette reported she was in court on charges that she was forcing young women to stay in her brothel. Miller seemed able to withstand the difficulties, however, and assuming that she reported her true age to census takers in , she would have been eighty when she disappeared from the public scene, ending a very long, and on the whole successful, career in prostitution. To what extent were Townsend, Berry, and Miller representative of the thousands of New York women who worked as prostitutes?
As will be demonstrated later in this chapter when we turn to data that suggests the general contours of a collective profile of prostitutes, Townsend, Berry, and Miller stayed much longer in the profession than was typical and perhaps were exceptionally career-oriented, adopting a businesslike commitment to the trade.
Most prostitutes never achieved as much success financially or developed as much stability and security in their social situations. Of course, the same might be said of most non-prostitutes of the time: In important respects, however, the life stories of Townsend, Berry, and Miller reflect challenges and limitations they shared with many other prostitutes and with working women generally.
By also reviewing the personal experiences of several prostitutes who did not rise to management positions in the trade, we can begin to appreciate the options these women perceived in life and the variety of approaches they took to shaping their lives.
Two young women who practiced prostitution for only a few years were the Utter sisters, Mary Ann and Ann Jeanette. Two years apart in age, the sisters were born in Connecticut and New York respectively.
Both parents were alcoholic; their father, a basketmaker, had abandoned the family, and their mother had been sent to the penitentiary. Their free time Saturday nights and Sundays was spent in New York City, and during one of these weekend jaunts they and a friend were arrested for using abusive language and throwing stones at a woman who hit them with a broom for taunting her child.
All three girls were placed in the House of Refuge. According to Refuge records,. Younger sister Ann Jeanette, after a few months in the Refuge, was believed to have improved enough to be indentured to a family in New Jersey. Both sisters were known to be practicing prostitution for the next year and a half. By the time Ann Jeanette was twenty-one, she had married and was thought to be doing well. She later had a child and visited the Refuge chapel.
She had entered prostitution shortly after her departure, and the last recorded entry about her indi-. She left home and went to board in a brothel on Walnut Street. Her parents then had her sent to the Refuge, and six months after being admitted she was indentured to a farmer in Westport, Connecticut, where she worked for over a year, receiving good reports. Several years later she visited the Refuge, and officials there were pleased to learn she was then working as a milliner.
Mary Jane Box lived with her widowed mother until she was seven, when she was put in service. Although her mother worked as a tailoress and had three grown children who were employed, they were all so poor that Box had to be put to work also. In her first two years as a servant she lived at eight different locations. She has been wandering about in this way for several years, has been she thinks at more than 50 different places.
At none of which she stayed more than 7 or 8 months. When Box was thirteen her mother died of cholera, and Box began going out with boys and men to houses of assignation. She was indentured to a family in Norwalk, Connecticut, but after only nine months they sent her back, saying her conduct was far past endurance.
About a year later she was indentured to a farmer in Fishkill, was happy with her position there, and stayed on for several years. Rice was almost seventeen when she was brought to the Refuge. Her father, a cooper, had died a couple of years before, and her mother was supporting the family by taking in washing. Rice had been a prostitute for more than a year when she was admitted to the Refuge. She was not happy there, tried unsuccessfully to escape, and finally agreed to try the House of Refuge to see if she liked it any better.
She never saw her mother but says she saw her father about two years ago. Before she could remember, however, she had been left in the care of Patience Berger, who brought her up in her house of assignation at Church Street. Berger sent Anthony away to school for four years, beginning when she was about ten years old, but following her return to New York,. Anthony became a prostitute. An acquaintance, a mantuamaker who had also formerly been a prostitute, gave her the name of a local gentleman who would help her find a position in some other profession.
Anthony did not tell the gentleman, a Mr. Green, that she had practiced prostitution, but rather that she wished to avoid the fate that staying in the Berger household would surely cause. Green placed her with a family in Oneida County, urging them to watch over her and not let men seduce her. She stayed on in Geneva after her indenture ended, and at age twenty-three, while on a trip to New York City, she paid a visit to the Refuge.
Less is known about Patience Berger than about her ward, or perhaps daughter, but information suggests the general pattern of the Townsend-Berry careers.
From the s to the s Berger ran either an assignation house or a brothel in lower Manhattan. Although her financial situation reflects some degree of change, on the whole, prostitution provided. Patience Berger with a long career of relative security and financial success. Although black New Yorkers suffered discriminations greater than most other groups in the population, their life stories illustrate the same kinds of circumstances that prompted so many other young women to become prostitutes.
Her father died in the cholera epidemic of , when Smith was twelve. While working in the boardinghouse, she met a white man, a Captain Armstrong from Liverpool, who started taking her to an assignation house on Catherine Lane that was managed by a black woman. Hotel at West Point for several months and then accompanied a friend to Pennsylvania for a few weeks.
Smith asked the police to arrest her daughter and send her to the Refuge. Like many other Irish females, Eliza Brakey came to America in to escape difficult conditions in Europe. Immigration was perhaps par-. Arriving in America, mother and daughters went to live in separate places—the mother in New York City and the daughters in service positions on Long Island.
Brakey worked for two-and-a-half years for one family but apparently became unhappy with the post and left Long Island for Mrs.
After her second jail term, Brakey went to live with her sisters on Long Island, but after a short while she again escaped to the city and Mrs.
This time her mother had her arrested for vagrancy and committed to the Refuge. The preceding cases suggest some tentative observations. The young women who entered New York City prostitution generally came from poor families or from families torn by conflict. Many teenagers seemed to prefer prostitution to the work and protection of the House of Refuge or other reform institutions. Some women provided well for themselves in the trade and thus made a long-term career of prostitution; others found it an easy occupation to pursue if they temporarily fell on hard times.
Most of those who can be followed go back into respectable marriage or career situations, but some of them simply disappear from historical sight, possibly returning to prostitution. Of those mentioned, only Jewett, so far as is known, died young. Although there are dozens of other personal profiles that give insight into the lives of prostitutes and could demonstrate further the diversity of the individuals who worked in the profession, the tentative observations above do help delineate some of the common characteristics of the New York women who practiced prostitution.
To gain a clearer focus on these women, we turn to a statistical generalization, or collective profile, of New York prostitutes as a group.
Furthermore, Sanger believed the average prostitute spent only four years in the profession before the hard life caused her to die prematurely. This profile did not differ on the whole from what the majority of New Yorkers believed about the prostitutes in their midst, and it also resembled the conclusions of other nineteenth-century social investigators who were concerned with prostitution.
New Yorker Charles Smith, writing a decade before Sanger, also had offered a general portrait, noting that though prostitutes came from. Most characteristic of the average mid-nineteenth-century New York prostitute was her youth. Youth was a definite asset in the profession, but the late teens or early twenties also represented a stage in life when a young woman might well be needing a job, gaining independence from her family, and making new acquaintances on her own before marrying and having a family.
The overwhelming majority of mid-nineteenth-century prostitutes were twenty-five years of age or under. Sanger found 74 percent in this age group, and of the prostitutes identified in the and censuses, 74 and 72 percent, respectively, were under twenty-five.
These figures include both brothel-keepers and common prostitutes, but the two groups can be distinguished on the basis of age. In the and censuses, the average age of the brothel-keepers was eight to twelve years higher and their median age eight to eleven years greater. Brothel-keepers were typically in their early to mid-thirties, though the youngest manager was nineteen and the oldest seventy table 5.
Although the madams or brothel managers were generally veteran prostitutes, they were not necessarily older women nor the oldest in the profession; twenty-six of the eighty madams identified If one excludes brothel-keepers from the two censuses studied, the average age of prostitutes was approximately twenty-three.
There were, however, many cases of children below this age who practiced prostitution. Police in the sixth ward found an eleven-year-old girl working as a prostitute in the brothel of Bridget Mangren near the Five Points. Joe Farryall, a notorious recruiter of prostitutes, was arrested with his wife for keeping a disorderly house, and one of the inmates arrested with him was ten years. In court Farryall was accused of having nine young girls in his house, two of whom were under twelve.
Charles Smith, in his book on prostitution, also noted that police arrested prostitutes who were as young as ten to fourteen, who had been led astray, he believed, by men well advanced in age. The Webber arrest led to an investigation of the extent to which young daughters of the poor were being recruited for prostitution.
According to the Sun , clandestine meetings were arranged by omnibus ticket boys, who were paid by men seeking assignations. Some professional child prostitutes continued working in the business into their adult years. Many were street hucksters whose activities presented opportunities for sexual contacts; the money they earned from one encounter with a man was far more then they might earn peddling fruit or flowers. Their ostensible business is the sale of fruits, socks, tooth-picks, etc.
In this way a young girl might earn two to three dollars a day, sometimes given to her parents, sometimes used to purchase some small luxury for herself. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, observers noted a substantial increase in childhood prostitution. This growth of juvenile prostitution and pedophilia, in both the United States and Europe, is an aspect of Victorian life that has not yet been fully explored, particularly with respect to the various social and psychological influences on the men involved.
We can readily understand, however, why many young girls were easy prey during this period: Many young girls, and sometimes their families, may have been led by ignorance, desperate want, or an experience of forced sex into accepting sexual encounters where they could earn a little extra money.
Contemporary claims that most prostitutes were foreign-born cannot be confirmed as readily as generalizations about their youth. Foreign-born residents constituted Many other foreigners did not settle permanently in New York but landed at the New York port in these years and stayed in the city for a while before moving on. Over a million immigrants arrived in the decade after , and almost two million between and In the single month of May , 32, aliens landed in New York City, the next month 33, came, and, in the peak year of , , immigrants arrived.
Some law-enforcement officials also may have demonstrated discriminatory. A study of police docket and arrest records in the s indicates that a woman was most likely to be arrested as a prostitute if she was in an ethnic neighborhood and was foreign, especially Irish.
Sanger found that In contrast, prostitutes identified in wards five and eight using census data include many fewer foreign-born women: The discrepancy may represent a difference in the types of prostitutes located: It is possible that immigrants were not considered as desirable as native-born women when hiring for brothels, so that their numbers in prostitution houses would be lower than they would be in the overall prostitute population.
Also, though wards did not differ greatly from one another in terms of immigrant population, wards five and eight were in the lowest third of wards in housing foreign-born inhabitants. The overall foreign population of these two wards was Irish women accounted for the largest immigrant group in both the prostitute population and the general population. In , Irish immigrants represented Irish women outnumbered Irish men in New York City at that time by about one-third, or more than 30,, a number greater than the combined total of all other foreign-born females except German.
Within her own ethnic neighborhood, an Irish woman was more likely to remain single than were women of other nationalities. This assumption was supported by the observations of a German visitor to New York in that Irish and German women generally were excluded from the finer brothels in the Mercer Street area, where Americans and a few Frenchwomen predominated. The periodic sweeping arrests of streetwalkers may have included many innocent women, but those arrested were mostly Irish and other foreign-born females table 7.
Uncertainty concerning the nativity of the majority of New York prostitutes does not extend to race: Also, prejudice played some role in limiting the chances that black women could improve their economic situations through prostitution. Certainly there were black prostitutes and black brothels, some of which were successful and mentioned in brothel guidebooks. This lady is a Southern Creole and her lady boarders are the same; they are very beautiful.
It is the only decent Creole house in the city…. Southern gentlemen will find this a very fine resort, and will feel quite at home. Much of the success of a brothel depended on the mystique surrounding the establishment, and Sarah Sweet cleverly played to the fantasies held about illicit sex in the South.
According to the Of the eighty brothels identified in wards five and eight in the and censuses, only two were black houses. Black women were 3 percent of the overall population at the time, and black men and women represented 7 percent of the total population of wards five and six, where most of the arrests were made.
Black women may have avoided prostitution more than white women because they were discriminated against by clients, or because they feared racially motivated abuse by customers as well as legal harassment and reprisals by the police and courts. It is a resort for niggers and pea-nut girls. At the watch returns yesterday morning, the Police Office presented a rich group of niggers, of all sizes and colors—black, white, and grey—but the odor was not quite as agreeable as the sight was amusing, to observe the different countenances, with their big lips.
It was really laughable. It is possible there were more black prostitutes and brothels than public records indicate because white officials may have ignored sexual commerce between black males and females unless it created a public disturbance in the community.
Nineteenth-century racism also assured that black males usually had access only to black brothels and streetwalkers, or to those integrated houses that were part of the lowest echelons of the trade. In spite of blatant public racism, officers sometimes protected the interests of black prostitutes. Most of the brothels located in wards five and eight had servants, largely black. There were 89 brothel residents in addition to the prostitutes in the census, and 77 of these were black.
Sixty-four were female servants, 7 were male servants, and 6 were black children. In the census, there were 69 residents in. Moreover, it was sometimes possible for black women to improve their positions and earnings by increasing their responsibilities and authority as servants. A second class house of six boarders … [which] seems to be managed by the colored servants. One can never see the proprietor who is concealed somewhere behind these sable breast works. The landlady is never seen.
It is impossible to say who is head of the house. The door is guarded by a grouty old dame from the south of Africa, whose assumed dignity is so over powering that most people suppose that she runs the establishment. These black women appear to have been servants, but they evidently assumed some of the management responsibilities of madams, maximizing their roles in a business where black authority commonly had to be oblique.
The statistical profile of the New York prostitute indicates that she was single as well as young and white. Sanger found 61 percent of his interviewees had never married, and 79 percent of the prostitutes working in brothels in wards five and eight in were unmarried. Of the large group of streetwalkers arrested on one evening that same year, 59 percent said they were single.
Both the Sanger study and the census identified Sanger was surprised by the fact that 25 percent of the prostitutes he interviewed said they were married, and he was appalled to learn that Almost half of the Sanger interviewees had had children—about three-fourths of the widows and married women, and about 30 percent of the single women.
Sanger assumed that most of these deaths must have occurred before the children were five years old, so he compared his figures to death rates of New York children in the same age category. Most New York prostitutes had worked in low-paying trades before entering the profession, and many were still so employed while practicing prostitution to supplement their incomes. Not surprisingly, the practice of part-time prostitution was more typical of streetwalkers than of brothel workers.
In the census of , most of the ward five prostitutes identified themselves as such. In ward eight, however, only 39 of the women responded to the question on employment. Economic stresses that might require wives and children to go to work to help support the family were more likely to occur in working-class families than in families at higher socioeconomic levels, but sexual indiscretions might be committed by a female from any family.
The effect of the double standard and social pressure on a young woman who had been sexually promiscuous and thus alienated from her family meant that she, regardless of class, had few options for supporting herself besides prostitution.
The length of time most women stayed in prostitution was an issue debated by nineteenth-century observers of the profession. Sanger believed that most New York prostitutes died after approximately four years, in other words, that one-fourth of all New York prostitutes died every year.
McDowall had stated a similar conclusion twenty-five years earlier, and William Tait, writing on Edinburgh prostitutes in , interpreted their short careers no more than four years as an indication of their early demise. Another observer, Samuel Prime, in Life in New York , agreed that prostitution led to death but stated that the average life expectancy after commencing prostitution might be as long as ten to fifteen years.
Although some died of disease and dissipation, he believed that at least two-thirds of the women left the profession to marry, take a lover, set up a business, start another trade, or migrate to the South or West. Some married; others had accumulated enough savings to be able to go into a trade, establish a shop, or open a boardinghouse. In fact, many of the prostitutes he had treated continued visiting him as patients after leaving the profession.
Although drawing different conclusions, all the commentators agreed that, on the whole, prostitutes practiced their profession for only a few years. Data taken from New York City public records, although selective, reveals little repetition in names of the prostitutes identified in the census when compared to the in the census.
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