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Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Wild West

Research Question: Although prostitution was largely illegal and extremely dangerous, many women seeking fame and fortune set up brothels in the booming gold rush towns of the Wild West. How did these women rise to become extremely wealthy, famous and respectable citizens?

Search Terms and Resources

Search Terms:  Mining, Prostitution, Gold Rush, Boom Towns, Wild West, Saloons and early 19th Century.


In the early 19th Century, a woman who owned property, made high wages, had sex outside of marriage, danced, drank, or walked alone in public, wore makeup and perfume, took baths and was not ashamed was probably a whore.  Despite the fact, prostitutes had all the freedoms that were denied to pioneer women.  Prostitutes made their own money, some owned tracks of land, some famous, others rose to the top and became Madam’s of their own Brothels.  But, for some, prostitution was a miserable way of life filled with violence, illnesses, disease and death.

Describe the historical event that you selected. Why is this event significant?

I believe that the era of the red-light district and prostitution in the settlement of the mining towns contributed to the success of those towns by bringing in business and therefore increasing the economic growth of those boom towns.

Audience and Message

The audience I am writing to people who are not familiar with the lives of prostitution in the early nineteenth century.  I want to bring to light the hardships and dangers as well as their successes.  I want to define these women’s role in the creation of the economy in mining towns and holding their own against a man’s world by using first-hand accounts, secondary sources, archeological and anthropological evidence to support my paper.

The message I am conveying to my audience is strictly factual interwoven with storytelling.  I am going to try to preserve their life as it was and how it was viewed upon during that time period.  I want to explain the evidence that supports these facts all the while making it an interesting historical essay.


The role of prostitution in the economic and social development of the Wild West” in the school textbooks on the history of America you will not find. But in vain: these pages are important, and sometimes even glorious. Also, unique: perhaps nowhere, and at least in relatively recent past, selling love did not exist in such golden conditions as on the frontier of the second half of the century before last.

The most successful prostitutes eventually became holders of brothels themselves and as such bought land and buildings, and some even financed the construction of irrigation systems and railways. To grow up to the status of madam, of course, not everyone could manage, but when it was possible Matty Silks, who started as a street prostitute, by the age of 19 already owned her institution in Denver, this is 1876 (Barnhart, 1979). For visitors in the living room brothel played a real symphony orchestra! Later, Silks opened three more brothels and kept a stable of racehorses. Thirdly, the status of a public woman proudly and even brazenly contradicted the patriarchal way of life, in which the woman’s place is in the kitchen. It was the prostitutes who invented a lot of dance movements that would later become common, used decorative cosmetics, which no girl from a good family could conceive of, openly and on an equal footing with men played gambling (and won). But the most incredible is the contribution of the owners of brothels too, as we would put it today (Von Staden, 1949). Anna Wilson, “Queen of the Demigod of Omaha,” bequeathed to the city a mansion that became an ambulance hospital.

The institution enjoyed great success – and not only because of the lack of competition. Here, for example, how Molly took a bath, timed the presentation (and this was exactly the view) to the days of large payments in the mines and accompanied by great advertising. She gathered the guests in her yard, pulled out a bathtub and filled it with water. “The boys” threw coins into the tub, and when the bottom was completely covered by them, Molly undressed and climbed into the tub, where she sat chatting with admiring public about all sorts of trifles and exchanging obscene jokes. As a special privilege, and for a special fee, I allowed some nice prospector to rub his back. In her free time, Molly helped the needy: she fed, treated, consoled and even saved the city when the smallpox epidemic began in it (Barnhart, 1979).

The golden age of prostitution in the West was short-lived, as, indeed, the golden age of the Wild West itself. In the early twentieth century, the boom associated with the development of new lands and fabulous enrichments in silver mines went into decline. Demographic imbalances were smoothed out, law and order reigned. On brothels and “individuals” began to press, pushing to the social bottom, and then completely banned. Prostitution, of course, has not gone anywhere (and will never go away), but nothing romantic or heroic in it is left remained only the memory, several names of women who went down in history due to beauty, a wise soul, a bright fate or all this taken together. Her real name is Maggie Hall. She was born in Dublin in a good family and received an excellent education for those times (Spude, 2005). At the age of 20 in search of adventure went to conquer America and first settled in New York, but there such as she was a car and a small cart. Maggie, changing her name to a more sonorous Molly, barely got a job as a waitress in a bar, where she met a man named Berdan, the scion of the wealthy parents who kept him (Clapp, 1949). They married secretly, for Berdan was afraid, as if dad, after learning about the misalliance, did not remove him from the allowance. I was not afraid in vain: my father did find out and refused to finance me. Molly wanted to return to the bar, but her husband had other kinds on her. It’s easy to guess which: the people started to sell wife (Degler, 1984).

The Catholic priest refused the poor thing in forgiving her sins, and she fled to the West, where she continued to sin, although she was now working for herself, not for her husband-gigolo. In 1884 – Molly was 31 years old – she read in a newspaper about a gold mine discovered in Murray, Idaho, and went there. On the train, Molly met another famous courtesan of those times, Desperate Jane. The ladies judged that together they would be cramped in the same town. They divided spheres of influence, Molly drove, as she planned, to Murray, and Jane returned to her home in Dakota. To do the last part of the journey where the railway was no longer there, Molly bought a horse and joined the train. Along the way, a heavy snowfall began. One woman, walking on foot with a small child, began to freeze, fall behind and fall. Molly pulled her furs out of the trunks and ordered the cartload to go further, and she stayed with this woman and the baby in a roadside hut that served as a shelter where they spent the night in fur coats, and the next day they reached Murray, where they could no longer see them alive. A young Irishman with a spark in his eyes asked the beautiful woman what her name was. “Molly Berdan,” she replied. “Oh, Molly Bi-Dam!” – He exclaimed, not having heard (play of words: it turned out “Molly Bud-Ty-Cursed”). Molly opened the brothel (Clapp, 1949).

People were frightened away at home, and then Molly assembled a city meeting, where she screamed at the cowardly inhabitants (Hapke, 1989). Some people felt ashamed. At least when Molly and her “girls” broke away from the usual classes, re-qualified as nurses, they were joined by the only doctor in the city, and O’Rourke, the Irishman, whose light hand she was called Molly Thou, Cursed, and later others. They defeated the field hospital, where patients were brought and treated them all that was at hand. Moli worked from morning till night, forgetting to eat and change, falling fatigued, and ignoring the cold. And the epidemic retreated. But Molly herself became sick with tuberculosis and died in January 1888 at the age of 35. Even after death, the Catholic Church, from which she was excommunicated in New York, did not agree to release her sins, and a Methodist priest visited Molly on a deathbed. On the day of the funeral, all the entertainment establishments were closed in the city. At the funeral, several thousand people gathered. Dying, Molly asked to knock out on her gravestone her real name – Maggie Hall, which was done. But still in the few surviving salutes of Murray sing songs about Molly B-Dam – a prostitute with a heart of gold (Hapke, 1989). So that no one thinks that the life of public women of the gold rush times was a continuous holiday, and if there were tragedies, they are beautiful and heroic, like the story of Von Staden, some other time I will tell about the sex slaves (Degler, 1984).

Lou Graham funded the first public schools in Seattle. After the earthquake in 1906 in San Francisco, the Diamond Jesse Heyman, cooperating with other Madams was paid for food and clothing for the homeless. And how much the income from corrupt love is richer by the sick fed hungry and built churches in small towns – and does not count. To the movement for civil rights, the benders also made a hand. Mary Ellen Pleasant, a quart-maker, a runaway slave from Georgia, in 1852 settled in San Francisco and very quickly gained not only wealth but also influence. Among the clients of her brothels were the strongmen of this world, and the colored ones who turned to her for help, Mama Pleasant not only fed but also arranged for work. She regularly donated large sums to the abolitionists and even fought in court against racial segregation in public transport (Clapp, 1949).

In 1850, the population of California, not counting the Indians, 93% consisted of men. A census of the population of miners’ towns in the area of the silver mine of Comstock (Nevada) in 1860 registered 2,306 men and 30 women. You understand, with such demand, to the same solvent, any girl of easy virtue was doomed to a dizzying success, including commercial. And another factor is the frontier. Absolute freedom, police, official law, even religion, not to mention prejudices and proprieties are somewhere very far away, beyond brackets. As a result, prostitutes enjoyed as a matter, of course, many rights for which decent ladies only began to fight much, much later. First, prostitution until the beginning of the twentieth century remained the highest-paid of all the hiring jobs available to women (Gentry, 1964). For example, in the town of Helena (Montana), night butterflies earned an average of $ 223 per month, while the most expensive saleswoman – only $ 65. By the way, for comparison: male workers (carpenters, masons, etc.) received $ 90-100, bank clerks – $ 125. Secondly, if married women could not own property, then the “fallen” such problems were not. In the same Helena for the same period, women were given 20 bank loans secured by real estate.


Barnhart, Jacqueline Baker. (1979) “Working Women: Prostitution in San Francisco from the Gold Rush to1900”.  Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, San Francisco.

Clapp, Shirley.  (1949) The Shirley Letters from the California Mines, New York: Knopf.

Degler, Carl N. (1900-1918)  “The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution In America, (Book).” Society, vol. 21, no. 4, May 1984, pp. 92–94. Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, 17 Jan. 2018.

Gentry, Curt. (1964) The Madams of San Francisco.  New York: Ballantine.

Hapke, L., (1989), Girls Who Went Wrong: Prostitutes in American Fiction: 1885-1917: Bowling Green, OH, Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Spude, C. (2005). Brothels and Saloons: An Archaeology of Gender in the American West. Historical Archaeology, 39(1), 89-106. Retrieved from

Von Staden, Margaret. (1949) “My Story: The History of a Prostitute’s Life in San Francisco.”  HLP. Box 10, Folder 162. Typescript.



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