Ladies Of The Night in the Old West

     First let me comment on the profession of the ladies of the evening.   As soon as storekeepers and saloon owners opened for business in a frontier town, Prostitutes were there to welcome the miners, soldiers and cowboys who were their best costumers.  Prairie nymphs as they were often called arrived in their own wagons and tents and set up shop.  Prostitutes were so numerous on the frontier that they are believed to have made up twenty percent of the female population of California in 1850.  They usually out numbered “respectable” women twenty-five to one.  Most western towns as the population grew could support a regular brothel staffed by four or five women.  In the Kansas cow towns the age ran from fourteen to thirty, the average age was twenty- three. Although most “filles du joie” were white, many brothel photos include Black, Asian and Hispanic women.  Julie Bulette, a famed Virgina City courtesan, was black.   Most prostitutes were single but some were married to their pimps or managers.

     Owners, operators, and employees were the cream of the profession.  They scorned those who rented rooms over A Painted Lady from the Old Westsaloons and the “crib” girls who peddled themselves from the front windows of their tiny establishments.  The street walker were the dregs of the sporting world and were the ones most often in trouble with the law.

     With notable exception, white slavery was a myth.  Most women who entered the trade did so with the pratical knowledge of their actions.    A prostitutes life was neither appealing or romantic, but rather, that opportunities available to a woman of those times were limited.  A female factory worker of the east was not paid a living wage for a single woman.  Dressmaking and millinery work was severely limited and, unlike the movies would have you believe, a western town could not support a woman either.  Prostitution was a alternative to poor wages and job insecurity and starvation.

     One Denver woman said “I went into the sporting life for business reasons and no other.  It was a way for women in those days to make money and I made it”.

     Another madam described her early career. “I’ve laid in all of’em (oil towns).  I throw-ed my Fanny twenty_one times a night, five buck a throw and “time old red eye (the sun) come up I was drunker’n an Indian”.

     At the turn of the century the Everleigh sisters in Chicago could demand from their clients fifty dollars and a formal recommendation.  On the frontier prices ranged from five dollars at a posh establishment to a dollar or less for run-of-the-mill for the less fastidious.

     The gal with the heart of gold was by and large a figment of lonely cowboys imaginations.    The sisterhood was at times close nit and often they banded together to help on out in need, during pregnancy’s and sickness.  Some times a girl escaped the life through marriage to a client.  Several men of note married prostitutes and their past was not mentioned in front of the husbands if you valued your health.

     I have let my self ramble on more than I intended.  It had been my thought to cover a few of the women in this chapter.  I will just breifly (ha) try to talk about one of these gals.

              SQUIRREL TOOTH ALICE 

     There is a popular photo of a woman sitting in a demure setting with a Prairie dog on her lap and it is titled “Squirrel Tooth Alice”, this is not the true Alice.

     Mary Elisabeth “Libby” Thompson 1855-1953;  Born Mary Elisabeth Hale was born in Balton,  Texas, to a troubled Drawing of Squirrel Tooth Alicechildhood.  Her family lost their fortune in the Civil.  In 1864 she was captured by the Comanche’s, ransomed back to her family at the age of thirteen.  People shunned her because they were sure she had been subjected to sexual abuse by her captors.  she eventually met a older man who didn’t care about her past.  Her father was enraged that the man was caring on with his young daughter and killed him.  This only enhanced the predigest of the surrounding people.

     At the age of fourteen Libby ran away to Abilene , Kansas.  with no options available to a young girl she became a dance-hall girl.  She met a gambler, sometimes cowboy, named Bill Thompson, brother to Ben Thompson.  Bill had a nose for trouble so they moved around a lot, with Libby plying her trade where ever the settled.  She bore a child to Thompson so they  married.

     In 1872 Libby was running a saloon in Sweetwater, Texas, with a brothel in back.  It was here where she took to keeping a Prairie Dog as a pet.  With the little critter in tow and a gap between her front teeth the customers started to referring to her as Squirrel Tooth Annie.  She ran her establishment until 1921 when she retired at the age of sixty-six.

     Thompson died long before she did and she had three other children by other men.  The boys all turned to crime and the girls to prostitution.  Libby spent her latter years living with her various children.  she died at the age of 98 in the Sunbeam Rest Home in Los Angeles, Calif. 

     I wonder how she managed to live so long with out the ravages of the sex born deseases we know to day.  And there was sure enough of them around back then.

     My wife and I used to visit antique stores all over the southwest when we could.  There is one in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.,  down by the railroad tracks.  It has a large entertaining room and a kitchen and dinning area down stairs.  We had always remarked on how small the sleeping areas were upstairs.  Hardly room for a small bed and maybe a chest, a small dresser, and tiny closets.  On our last visit  two young women who were working told us some of the history of the place.  They said it was built in the 1800′s as a bordello.  Explains the crib like rooms.

     Well hope you enjoyed this outing.  Also must add at this time that was the olny visit I ever made to one of those establishments.

                  hobbling on out of here.

                            ramblingbob    

30 Responses to “Ladies Of The Night in the Old West”

  1. Ivan van der Meer Says:

    Great article Bob. Question…was Squirrel
    tooth Alice buried on Boot Hill? Who is the girl then that is posing as Alice in the photo then?

  2. elaine davis Says:

    as an a member of a pioneer az family, I was fascinated by your story which is somewhat similar to one of my great aunt’s career…thanks so much!

  3. ramblingbob Says:

    Welcome thank for stopping by.

  4. Mitch Alatorre Says:

    STA is my great-grandmother. Until very recently this aspect of my history was completley unknown to my family. Wow, what a shocka. All these years I though my heritage was an Oakie. Now I can proudly state I came from TEXAS!

  5. Mitch Alatorre Says:

    No Ivan she is buried in Los Angeles county.

    One other aspect I thought I’d share is that Im very proud of her. She lived in a very harsh era and managed to eeek out a living as neccasary. Thankfully, for if she hadnt I would not be here writing this right now :-)

  6. Mitch Alatorre Says:

    Just one more note.

    She was married to Texas Billy Thompson. He and his brother Ben had very interesting lives as well. For some reason Ben was left out of the history of the wild west even though he was known by Buffulo Bill Cody and Bat Masterson as the best pistoleer of the era.

  7. ramblingbob Says:

    Mitch, thanks so much for you visit, comments and information. I plan to write one on Ben and brother Bill when I recover more fully from the stroke, they show up in so many of the other ones. The chapter on the ladies of the night are my most sought out and read, wish I could provide more on them. As stated Many of these women went on to become respected ladies of the old west. And to claim to be a desendent from one is no shame.
    I am always so pleased to hear from some one like you. ramblingbob

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  9. Kathie Says:

    Bob, I hae been doing some research on the soiled dove and ran across a young woman by the name of Jean. She lived in Bodie Calif. Left the profession and married the town butcher. I know she was burried by her husband, but he had to put her grave outside of the cemetary.
    Would you happen to know what her full name is and when she lived there?

  10. ramblingbob Says:

    Sorry Kathie, do not know any thing about this girl. No idea where you might kind out anymore. Thanks for the visit.

  11. Cecile Says:

    The woman you are talking about is Lottie Johl, not Jean. I wrote about her on my website:

    http://www.explorehistoricalif.com/feb2006.html

  12. ramblingbob Says:

    Cecile, thanks so much for your insite. I visited your website and found the story facinating. I had not heard it before, I am constantly admazed by the beople I meet and the information exchanged on the internet. Thanks for visiting my little cornor of the community. I have addes your site to my favorites. ramblingbob.
    P.S. I wish I weas well enough to join one of your trips

  13. Janine Says:

    I was told by a very well known pyschic that I was a famous madam in the wild west in Dodge City, Kansas in a past life. I was the owner a a very classy joint and not a lady of the evening myself. I will try and find out the name the next time I visit with her. Do you know how many there were in the mid 1800′s?

  14. ramblingbob Says:

    Well I was told by a pretty scary, and nail on the head pyschic that I will live to be 95, not sure I want to believe her the way things are going. But as to your question, I do not believe anyone can answer it with any accurcy. There were quite a few of various stages of fame and esteem. If you ever discover yourself please be sure to let us know who you were.

  15. Ann Says:

    Mary Elizabeth (Libby) Haley Thompson was the daughter of James Haley and Mary C. Raburn Haley. She can be found on the 1860 and 1870 Hood County, Texas Census listed with her parents. Actually in 1870 she was not in Texas, but was in Kansas and on the 1870 Ellsworth Kansas Census. 1880 Callahan County, Texas Census list she, her husband (William Henry (Billy) Thompson and three children. 1900 Hood County, Texas Census finds her (M. E. Thompson) with seven children, two grandchildren and her 75 year old father, James Haley. Thought you might like to have this information.

  16. "kowboy" Paul Says:

    It’s a shame that ladies of the old west were labeled as they were. Especially if they had been taken by indians such as Squirrel Tooth. People were very curel back then. The life of a prostitute was difficult. But hey, a womans gotta do what a womans gotta do, right………

  17. Nanette Worden Says:

    I am the the great great great granddaughter of Lottie Johl. My great grandma Mattie Baker was her daughter. She married at Lotti and Elis home when she was 16.

  18. carole thompson Says:

    Alice was my great grandmother although we knew about Billy very little was said about Grandma Libby as she was called until recently. It is interesting to the family to realize there is so much information about her out there

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