The subject of prostitution in the Old West produces a lively conversation that can be intriguing as well as educational. However gritty and dangerous prostitution was, the act was often viewed as a healthy and integral part of life. As more and more male settlers, prospectors, cowboys and speculators ventured West, the need for female companionship ballooned. In lonely mining camps, men sometimes paid just to view female garments, on or off the woman. Many of the few but brave, or perhaps desperate, women who made their way from the East looked for riches in the skin trade. Almost every mining camp, boomtown and whistle-stop housed at least one or two soiled doves, if not an entire, roaring red-light district. This contributed greatly to town economies via business licenses, fees, and fines.
The financial welfare of prostitutes depended on where they worked. Those living above bars or in seedy brothels rarely made enough money to retire and often ended their lives by suicide, overdoses or illness. Gonorrhea, syphilis, and Chlamydia, potentially fatal maladies, ran rampant during in the 1800s. According to reports from an Idaho hospital, one out of every seven patients suffered from venereal disease. Botched abortions and murder rounded out the number of women who died working as soiled doves.
Madams, who had more control over their businesses, fared better, but not by much. On the other hand, Mattie Silks of Denver once netted $38,000 running a bordello for three months in Dawson City, Alaska. But when she died in 1929, her assets amounted to no more than a few thousand dollars.
Despite their black reputations, some whores proved to be, indeed, fallen angels. During her years as a madam, Laura Evens of Salida, Colorado, sheltered abused wives and secretly paid the wages of men recovering from injuries on the job. Still, these women suffered blatant hypocrisy at the hands of local government.
Towns demanded red light ladies pay monthly fines, fees, and taxes, even as authorities staged raids and arrests. In 1908, officials in Salt Lake City, Utah, hired Dora Topham, the leading madam of Ogden to operate a “legal” red-light district. Appealed with the idea, Topham oversaw construction of the “Stockade,” a high-walled city block housing several cribs, six parlor homes, a dance hall, saloons, a cigar store and a small jail cell. Up to 150 women could work the Stockade at a time. The project failed for several reasons; the lack of cooperation from local prostitutes unwilling to sell out and move to the Stockade; employees who felt stifled by the stringent regulations; and customers hesitant to be seen entering the premises. Plus, the government continued to stage raids to appease county, state and federal laws. In 1911, Topham was accused of working as a madam by the same officials who hired her to do so.
Prices for services:
By a Chinese, black or American Indian girl, in Tombstone, Arizona, circa 1880 - $.25
By a Mexican prostitute in Tombstone, same era - $.50
By a French girl in Tombstone, same era - $.75
Service to soldiers at Fort Whipple, Arizona - $1
Visit to plush parlor house in Tombstone, same era - $10
Service lasting an entire night in a Tombstone bordello - $30
Number of customers some women saw in an average payday at the mines – 70
Weekly salary of a prostitute in Tombstone during the 1800s - $150
All night stay at Old Homestead in Cripple Creek, Colorado in 1890s - $250
Estate of Madam Mary “Mother Gleim” of Missoula, Montana at time of her death in 1914 - $148,000
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Charlene Raddon is an award-winning, multi-published author of historical romance set in the American West. She is also a cover artist.You can find her at: