November 20, 2021 by Pamela Nowak
Prostitution was a big part of the lives of both Celie/Mattie Blaylock and Josie Mansfield/Marcus. This week, I thought I would spend a little time on that topic, rather than on the Earps themselves. I’ve resurrected some posts from 2015 and adapted them.
On the American frontier, in 1849, the ratio of men to women was 100:2. It was no wonder that the business gained a foothold. Nor is it surprising that prostitutes played a large role in the settlement of the West.
Prostitution has been part of history for as long as history has existed. Recorded as far back as the Sumerian Empire (2000 B.C.), the practice has at times been respected and at other times reviled, depending upon the culture. Though most European countries and the United States had laws against the practice by the 19th century, prostitution flourished in many areas—especially in the U.S. West, where women were scarce.
The term “red light district” has long been used to label those areas where houses of prostitution were clustered. Some sources say railroad men left their red signal lanterns on the porches when they went inside to conduct business. Other sources claim prostitutes themselves began hanging red lanterns on their porches to indicate they were “doing business.” In this way, a house that appeared legitimate was set apart for illegitimate purposes. The color red was also used inside many brothels as a major decorating theme.
Red light districts often grew up near railroad lines, where there was a constant flow of men. Such neighborhoods also abounded in mining towns, with or without railroads. Typically, where there was a substantial male population (permanent or transient), such areas could be found.
At the lowest end of the prostitution spectrum were the streetwalkers who serviced clients in alleyways. Usually least desirable, these women might be older, less attractive than others in the trade, or those suddenly thrust into poverty with no other means for survival. They frequently lived on the edge of starvation and were victimized more often than others. Most did not survive long. Those who entered the trade at a brothel house level often stayed in harsh conditions there rather than risking becoming a streetwalker.
One step above streetwalkers were those who worked in the “cribs” that were often located near railroad tracks and alleys. These basic rooms provided prostitutes who plied their trade on the street with a private area in which to conduct business instead of servicing clients in alleys. Women paid rent for their use. If they had a steady group of regulars, they might avoid having to court customers on the street. Or these women might have a pimp who procured customers and sent them to the cribs. A pimp provided sporadic protection, used his “stable” of women whenever he desired, and kept most of the money due the women. In larger cities, pimps controlled much of the crib trade and might rent or own the rooms—collecting extra from their girls for their use and frequently used threats and physical power to force independent prostitutes to align with them. In these situations, independence carried a risk of being beaten or killed. Customers were usually those unable to pay the higher rates at brothels and parlor houses and this life was one of poverty.
Above the crib level prostitutes were those who operated from their own homes. In general, these were widows or older women with no other means of support. In some cases, they had children in the home. These women generally did not engage in the trade full-time but took on clients only when necessary or relied on regulars who might come on an occasional basis. Most tried to live a normal life between their customers and some entertained clandestinely enough so that the public wasn’t aware of their secret lives. Others were ostracized and lived on the outskirts of town or in the country. Mattie Blaylock spent the last years of her life in this type of situation, operating from a small room/house in Pinal, Arizona.
Some prostitutes worked in saloons or dance halls. These women provided friendly company to drinking men and often accompanied them upstairs for private entertainment.
In some town, theatres with private boxes filled the same niche. In many cases, these girls became little more than indentured servants and business was often conducted with the owner of the saloon (in many cases the bartender). Rooms were simple and no promise of elegance or accomplishment was implied. These women often became victims of violence—committed by both customers and their pimps. The business Johnny Behan operated in Tip Top, Arizona was likely this type of establishment and Josie Mansfield may have serviced men in this type of situation in Tombstone after she and Johnny parted ways. The Birdcage Theatre in Tombstone was known to have rooms upstairs for such purposes.
Many prostitutes worked in brothels. These houses were generally owned or rented by a madam who assembled a group of women to work for her. This “stable” of prostitutes lived in the brothel, each having her own room, and ate communal meals provided by a cook who was employed by the madam. Typically, brothels were not fancy and could often be shabby. The madam usually collected the payments from customers and paid each girl. Some madams deducted the cost of meals and clothing from these payments, usually at an inflated rate, a strategy to keep them from earning enough to leave. Some brothels might charge a flat rate and some might charge according to a menu. Most had some form of bar in the parlor so they could sell drinks to men while they waited.
Working girls here were older, less accomplished, and less elite. Though clothing was fancier than what housewives would wear, it was not elegant. At times, those working there wore only underclothing. Clientele in these houses were usually not screened and girls working there took more risk. Brothels might use girls procured for a term of years. Often less educated, they were more likely to become victims of unscrupulous madams who cheated them of earnings and forced them to serve longer than their original contract might specify.
Typically, those who worked in brothels had to procure licenses from the city. This was a way for cities to manage the prostitution that was occurring anyway and keep it under control. It brought income to the city and made it easier to process arrests. It also provided an avenue for corruption. A madam might work with a “manager” whose responsibilities would include bouncing troublesome clients and procuring clients. Wyatt Earp was arrested numerous times as manager of a house of ill-fame. Managers and madams paid higher fines than the girls. Mattie Blaylock’s court records list her as a madam but she also served a fair amount of time as working girl before she reached that status.
Toward the upper end of the scale were parlor houses; often known as “boarding houses.” Most had musicians who doubled as bouncers when necessary and a cook. The madam took a portion of money paid her “girls” in exchange for use of the house. Men paid according to the service and amount of time desired and girls with special talents might make more money than their “sisters.”
Elite parlor houses generally were in prominent locations in the outer ranges of red light districts. These houses were well-maintained and prestigious. Inte
rior décor was lavish and varied from tasteful to over-the-top depending upon the owner/madam. The most elite were run by a sophisticated madam and had strict rules of behavior for customers and the women employed there. Music and refreshments were provided in the parlor. The girls of the house wore the latest fashions and expensive lingerie and were accomplished both socially and in the bedroom. Customers paid handsomely for their services and such houses sometimes had a limited client list which was carefully crafted by the madam to assure the safety of her girls. Frequently, the employees in these houses were known for specific talents. Routine medical exams were usually provided them.
The houses of prostitution Josie Marcus would have seen along Powell and Clay streets when she was growing up likely included a mix of parlor houses and brothels.
Women who worked in brothels and parlor houses often dreamed of leaving. It was rare that a woman could leave the business entirely. A woman who managed her money wisely or who had a financial partner might be able to become a madam herself. Some aspired to a role as a courtesan or mistress, a kept woman. Courtesans and mistresses operated independently. Because their business was conducted with individual men who provided them support and housing in return for exclusive privileges, they did not necessarily have places of business in known red light districts. Instead, they might live anywhere in the community, though most likely their homes would not be located in family residential neighborhoods.
Josie Mansfield was listed in the Tip Top, Arizona census records as a courtesan.