"Respectable" Attitudes Towards Early Prostitution


Barbary Coast dancehall

It seems clear from accounts of the time that women who were not prostitutes feared being taken for prostitutes, or likened to prostitutes. One woman worries about the custom of giving expensive presents to daughters of decent families. These women are being treated nearly as prostitutes, and they're accepting, and even welcoming, this treatment (Royce 1932, 114-15). If women were not careful, the line between respectability and license would disappear (though it's not clear what good the line did them, since in their eyes men had control over defining who fell on which side of the line, therefore men had the upper hand no matter which side of the line one fell on). So they reinforced the line in various ways, frequently by blaming the prostitute for having disreputable morals. Here are two examples of this sort of move.

Josiah Royce's mother, Sarah, wrote her account of life in early San Francisco at her son's request. In part of the memoir that resulted, she told the following story as an illustration of the moral dangers posed to those who came to make their fortunes in San Francisco: "one of the sensations of that year (1850), was an entertainment, got up for the benefit of a Benevolent Society which, even in that early day, had been organized months before, and had done, and continued doing, works of mercy, which cheered and saved many a lonely wanderer. The entertainment was conducted by the ladies of the different churches, of which there were, in the city, already four. ...[T]here entered the room a man, prominent for wealth and business-power, bearing upon his arm a splendidly dressed woman, well known in the city as the disreputable companion of her wealthy escort. With cool assurance he proceeded to make her and himself quite at home; but in a few minute she was waited upon by a committee of gentlemen, who called him aside, and told him they were sent, by the lady-managers to say that they declined to receive as an associate, or to have introduced to their daughters, one who stood in the relation occupied by his companion, and they respectfully requested him to invite her to withdraw with him. Of course there was nothing for him to do but to comply; and all went on again pleasantly. It was reported that he had previously boasted that he could introduce Irene any where in San Francisco, but the events of that evening proved to him, as well as to others, that while Christian women would forego ease and endure much labor, in order to benefit any who suffered, they would not welcome into friendly association any who trampled upon institutions which lie at the foundation of morality and civilization." (Royce 1932, 113-14).

The following letter was reportedly sent to the Vigilance Committee of 1856 after Charles Cora, a well-known gambler, had been hanged for the murder of William Richardson. Belle and Charles married on the day of his execution.

To the Vigilance Committee: "Allow me to express to your respected body our high appreciation of your valuable services so wisely and judiciously executed. You have exhibited a spirit of forbearance and kindness that even the accused and condemned cannot but approve. May Heaven continue to guide you.

"But, gentlemen, one thing more must be done: Belle Cora must be requested to leave this city. The women of San Francisco have no bitterness toward her, nor do they ask it on her account, but for the good of those who remain, and as an example to others. Every virtuous woman asks that her influence and example be removed from us.

"The truly virtuous of our sex will not feel that the Vigilance committee have done their whole duty till they comply with the request of Many Women of San Francisco (Jacobson 1941, 149)."

--Caroline Danielson

Contributors to this page include:

San Francisco Public Library,San Francisco,CA - Publisher or Photographer

Danielson,Caroline - Writer

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