Gold-Rush Era Prostitutes

Historical Essay

by Mindy M. Krazmien


Barbary prostitutes, 1890
Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

As the epicenter of the mythically lurid times of the Gold Rush, and the locus of free love in the 1960s, San Francisco has inspired a long and impressive sexual mythology. This mythology has its roots in the Amazon myth, articulated by popular 16th century Spanish author, Garcia Ordez de Montalvo. He wrote about California as a land of only women, strong and forceful and untamed. Spanish explorers brought these romantic notions about exotic women with them to California, giving birth to centuries of Golden State mystique.

Gold rush San Francisco had its own version of this mythology: that of the bawdy pioneer prostitute. The suggestion conjures images of lavishly dressed women draping the arms of tough looking gamblers drinking whiskey and throwing bags of gold dust on the card table. Indeed, some of this mythology rings true. Prostitutes occupied a privileged place in gold-rush society, with economic opportunity beyond that of any other working American females. And they certainly belonged to the pioneer, gold-miner elite, involved in legendary bar-fights and shoot-outs in the honor of their slighted lover. One San Francisco madam, Belle Cora, had her lover Charles Cora, hung for such a crime. (She married him a couple of hours before his execution.)

Still, prostitution quickly developed into one of the most degrading and subjugated professions in San Francisco society. Whether its practitioners were indentured Chinese women, economically and socially oppressed Latina women, or kidnapped and enslaved white women, prostitution for some became a form of imprisonment and punishment as opposed to a profession. At the same time, the number of prostitutes multiplied and developed a hierarchical system in which many women were disempowered by the lack of economic opportunity. From 1848 to the late 1850s, prostitutes experienced an unprecedented ascension in power and a brutal fall from grace in San Francisco.

Before the gold rush and the subsequent urban development (1848-1849), the Bay Area had no organized prostitution as such. The population was mostly Californios, with Native Americans at the bottom of the social hierarchy. There is some evidence, however, of men in the Native American population prostituting their wives to sailors when ships came to port. Richard Henry Dana, Jr. published his observations of California, Two Years Before the Mast, in 1835. He wrote, "I have frequently known an Indian to bring his wife . . down to the beach and carry her back again, dividing with her the money which she had got from the sailors." There is also record of informal prostitution among the upper class Spanish and Mexican families. In the same year, another observer, James Douglas, recorded: "It is said that many even of the most respectable classes prostitute their wives for hire, that is, they wink at the familiarity of a wealthy neighbor who pays handsomely for his entertainment."

With the development of gold mining in 1848-1849, San Francisco underwent many changes that led to a flourishing prostitution business. The most important factor was the influx of young men who came as gold-seekers. In 1849, miners migrated from the South and the East, with forty thousand immigrants arriving by ship alone. Because of the rough conditions and the transitory nature of gold speculation as a profession, women (particularly respectable women, such as wives with children) were scarce in San Francisco. One source cites a 50-1 male-to-female ratio. The surplus of lonely men comprised a plentiful market for prostitution.

The business opportunities of gold-rush San Francisco were also an important factor in the flourishing of prostitution. The prospect of gold brought both immigrants (new business) and wealth (expendable income) into the city, and therefore the profit potential for entrepreneurs was high. Financial growth was, indeed, enormous, and demand had so outdistanced supply that prices were going higher every day . . . wages, prices, and profits skyrocketed. In addition, there was no organized business class or established sex industry to thwart enterprising individuals. Consequently, the potential for upward mobility was great among all professions and in particular among prostitutes.

A third factor for the growth of prostitution was the less restrictive atmosphere of San Francisco as opposed to Eastern cities. The community was relatively amenable to prostitution. One reason for this unique environment was the transitory nature of the male population. The great bulk of gold seekers came out with the same purpose in mind . . . to spend as short a time as possible scooping up the golden nuggets; and to return home to live on the wealth they had acquired. Very few intended to make California their home. In this ephemeral atmosphere people were more likely to succumb to the practices that would have condemned them under the watchful eyes of their home communities. A person's reputation was not necessarily at stake in this fleeting, far-off land, and this led to the suspension of social and moral restraints.

A second reason for the less prohibitive nature of the city was the tremendous economic and population growth, and the municipal government's inability to keep up with the changing city. City services, including police and fire protection--San Francisco was leveled by fire five times between 1849 and 1850--simply did not exist. Prostitution was more acceptable and able to flourish.

In this fertile environment, organized prostitution began in the mining towns during the first half of 1849. These women, referred to as pioneer prostitutes or señoritas, were mostly indentured Latin Americans who were forced to entertain men in the rough mining camps. Some became mistresses of certain miners, a situation which implied a relationship and a larger degree of respectability. The most famous of these mistresses was Juanita, who became the first woman hanged in California after stabbing a man who was about to attack her man. In addition to being the first prostitutes, they were also the only ones who worked in the mining camps.

In the meantime, a different culture of prostitution was developing in San Francisco during the second half of 1849. During that time, a wave of European and white American prostitutes arrived in the area and took advantage of the chances for social mobility in the sexually permissive city. In September of that year, observer Caleb T. Fay wrote, "The only aristocracy we had here at the time were the gamblers and prostitutes." According to other observers as well, prostitutes were part of the upper echelons of San Francisco society. Not only were they the most elegantly dressed women in San Francisco . . . both on the street and in the gambling saloons where they worked, but they actually set the style for the ladies in the city. Furthermore, their social circles involved the most prominent men in town. Another observer, Hubert Howe Bancroft, wrote that "Deference was paid by all classes to the female form, even though its dress covered corruption; nor was it very damaging to any man's reputation . . . to be seen in conversation with a public woman."

San Francisco's infamous gold-rush casinos played an integral role in the establishment of the business of prostitution. The earliest urban prostitutes worked in the gambling parlors. A French journalist made the following observation: "Women, who are chosen from among the most attractive, are employed to take care of the gambling tables, and naturally men gather in a circle around them." It was a fiercely competitive position, as the women were paid for their presence both by the casinos and by their male customers. Officially, they were hired either as decoys (sitting at the tables entertaining the men) or waiter-girls (serving food and drink). Unofficially, the women made sexual arrangements individually with the customers. Some establishments even provided make-shift rooms for the private use of the women. The situation was mutually beneficial, allowing women a venue to solicit men and helping casinos attract customers. Competition was fierce on both sides of the relationship, and each helped the other establish themselves. Indeed, one historian observes that the competition among women for positions in the most elegant saloons and among proprietors for women in the cheaper establishments was the initial step in the development of a hierarchy among San Francisco prostitutes.

In fact, gambling also played a central role in the development of prostitution's most elite element: parlor houses. In time the parlor houses would be noted for their social exclusiveness, only those who belonged making it past the colored servant at the door. In general, these chic bordellos were run by a madam in conjunction with a male financial backer, usually a gambler. Often wealthy gamblers backed their mistresses (kept women) in such business endeavors. Two famous madams, Irene McCready and Belle Cora, were both financed by their high-rolling lovers. McCready was the mistress of A.J. McCabe, who owned the infamous El Dorado, and Cora was the mistress of mining-town gambler Charles Cora.

Traditionally, the madam was never a prostitute in her own house; instead, she ran all of the business aspects of the operation, a task which took considerable skill and executive ability. She was responsible for managing the women, caring for the house, and keeping the authorities at bay through bribes and social connections. One of her most important duties was collecting payments from the clients, instead of having the women themselves ask for money. This maintained the social distinction.

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