Prostitutes were a significant part of western history. They were one of the first groups of people to arrive in the American west in the early 1800s. During this time period, thousands of single men flocked to the west in hopes of striking it rich due to the California Gold Rush of 1849 and other reasons. These men viewed the west as a land of opportunity, and eventually so did many females—prostitutes especially. Considering the large number of males who moved west during this period, it is no wonder that prostitutes found it easy to promote their business. Women who became prostitutes were typically poor, uneducated or part of a minority group, making them desperate for any sort of job. Once they arrived in the west, prostitutes became saloon girls, joined parlor houses, (prostitution houses), brothels (also prostitution houses), or simply carried out their trade on the streets. Even though they may have come from states of poverty and were usually uneducated, prostitutes received a seemingly infinite amount of business opportunities and attention, qualifying them as an important part of western history.
One significant prostitute of the American West was Mattie Blaylock, who led a life difficult due to her chosen profession. Born in Iowa in 1850, Mattie was the third child of Henry Blaylock and Elizabeth Vance. In 1868, Mattie and her younger sister, Sarah, headed west where Mattie sought work as a seamstress. Unsuccessful and ashamed that they ran away from home, they both eventually returned home to an unwelcoming greeting from their parents. Mattie, who often used the names Sarah or Celia, became a prostitute sometime in 1872. She at first worked in Fort Scott in Kansas and later in Dodge City, Kansas. Around the same time, she met her future common-law husband, Wyatt Earps. Unfortunately, Mattie led a difficult life. She frequently suffered from severe headaches and began taking laudanum, a painkiller which she became addicted to. Furthermore, her husband, Wyatt, started seeing Josephine “Sadie” Marcus. After some time, he left Mattie for Sadie. Mattie then died in 1888 due to a laudanum overdose. Due to her several misfortunes, Mattie Blaylock’s life as a prostitute was overall a depressing and challenging one.
PROSTITUTION AND VIOLENCE
Prostitutes in the American west usually faced a multiplicity of difficulties, including disease, violence, and suicide. Violence proved to be the most problematic of them all. Prostitutes fought not only with unruly costumers but also with one another. For instance, a prostitute named Louisville Lou was killed by another prostitute, Jenny Lyons, who was in her same brothel. The subject of the argument was Quade Hill, a man who both women were fighting for the affections of. Upon hearing of Lou’s death, Quade became tremendously distraught and beat Lyons severely. Unfortunately, violent acts such as these were not uncommon among prostitutes of the American west and posed as major issues.
PROSTITUTION: MYTH VS. REALITY
Prostitutes of the American west connect with the key theme of “Myth and Reality.” Prostitution was subject to many different rumors and myths. Additionally, the idea of prostitution was greatly associated with the American west—when people thought of the west, they most likely thought of saloon girls and brothels. People not familiar with the west often times thought of the prostitution business as a glamorous one—at least for some of the more well-known and high-paid prostitutes and brothel owners. They heard stories of famous women such as Fannie Porter, who ran a successful brothel in San Antonio which made her rich. However, the prostitution business was often times not glamorous whatsoever. Many prostitutes, such as Mattie Blaylock lived lives full of drugs, violence, and depression. This seemed to be the case with most women in this industry at any level. Summarily, there were several myths involving prostitution in the American west, but not very many of them were true.
CLASSES OF PROSTITUTION
One of the most interesting aspects of prostitution in the American west was the class order of prostitution. At the bottom level were the streetwalkers, who plied their trade out on the streets to random strangers. These prostitutes were in more danger than any of the others, and they were the most looked down upon. One step up from the streetwalkers were the saloon girls, whose business deals mostly occurred on the top floors of saloons and business halls. Next were the cribs that catered to men from out of town. At the top level were the parlor houses, or brothels. The prostitutes in these homes worked for the most exclusive and elite clients. Summarily, it is fascinating that there were different social classes of prostitutes.