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Racy Madams (Bancroft), Soiled Doves (Seagraves), Calamity Jane (Aikman)

Review by Martha Quillen

Prostition in the Old West – July 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Six Racy Madams of Colorado
by Caroline Bancroft
Copyright 1965 by Johnson Publishing Company
ISBN 0-933472-22-6

Soiled Doves – Prostitution In the Early West
by Anne Seagraves
Copyright 1994 by Wesanne Publications
ISBN 0-9619088-4-X

Calamity Jane and the Lady Wildcats
by Duncan Aikman
Introduction by Watson Parker
University of Nebraska Press
Copyright 1927
First Bison Book Printing 1987
ISBN 0-8032-5911-5 (pbk)

HERE ARE THREE BOOKS about famous women of ill-repute, prostitutes, fallen women, soiled doves, ladies of the night, the demimonde, or whatever you want to call them.

In Soiled Doves by Anne Seagraves, they go by many names — since the book includes numerous excerpts from old newspapers. One from the Denver Republic, May 1889, announced, “Over a hundred French women were arrested yesterday afternoon…”

Seagraves’s book is the only one of these three that tries to incorporate all of the West’s fallen women: Chinese slaves, crib girls, madams, parlor house boarders, hog ranch residents, and streetwalkers.

From the introduction on, it’s obvious that Seagraves feels an enormous amount of sympathy for her subjects. In her view, “There were many kind, generous ladies of easy virtue. These women spread a silken web of good deeds that sparkled in the wilderness. They contributed to the local charities, hospitals and churches and were the first to lend a hand during a disaster, or offer assistance to the survivors.”

As the book goes on, the author concludes that many of them were lonely victims, cut off from family, isolated by society, ostracized by many, mistreated by the law.

Thus, Soiled Doves begins rather awkwardly, as Seagraves warns the reader not to judge these women too harshly. Since I suspect we tend to judge only the living harshly, whereas we eulogize the escapades of yesteryear, I thought Seagraves tended to belabor her point beyond need.

And I was also a little suspicious of her first chapter, where she tries to define the different classes of prostitutes — since nine pages isn’t really enough to delve into the sociology of prostitution.

Besides, even in the Old West, prostitution wasn’t really a rank-and-file career like the military. Undoubtedly, the lives, pay, and conditions varied considerably from New Orleans to Helena, and from Denver to San Francisco, and from 1849 to 1910. All in all, Soiled Doves tries to portray a great many women, leading very different sorts of lives in very different states and cities.

But even so, Seagraves’s sympathy pays off when she gets to her individual stories. There the text runs rapidly, interspiced with news stories, obituaries, and glorious pictures. At times, the sheer immensity of her undertaking seems to lead to inaccuracy, however, as when she says Laura Evans “ran a successful brothel until prostitution in Colorado became illegal.”

Evans ran a brothel in Salida until 1950, when the state finally got huffy about out-of-the-way places that still tended to tolerate the age-old business. Otherwise, the text is a clear, readable sampling of the personal lives of Old West prostitutes.

Curiously enough, however, I thought the most fascinating character included in Soiled Doves was Donaldina Cameron, who wasn’t a prostitute at all. Cameron was a Presbyterian missionary in San Francisco who spent 37 years raiding the brothels and opium dens of Chinatown. During her career, she rescued hundreds of girls who had been bought in China and transported to California. An organizer of daring rescues, Cameron fought the slave traders hand to hand, smashed down doors with an ax, and over the years, housed over 3,000 Chinese girls at her mission.

Six Racy Madams of Colorado by Caroline Bancroft, on the other hand, only delves into the lives of a few old-time Coloradans, three of them from our region: Laura Evans of Leadville and Salida fame, Lillian Powers of Salida and later Florence, and Cock-eyed Liz of Buena Vista.

Having interviewed not only a good many of their friends, but also both Evans and Powers, Caroline Bancroft was able to relate their stories with a lot of local color and detail. Moreover, Bancroft herself is a bit of a legend in Colorado. A popular historian and newspaper writer in the ’50s & ’60s, she is attributed with making up Baby Doe’s most famous line, “Hold on to the Matchless.”

But even if Bancroft sometimes took a few liberties, her research came from more than books, and her accounts are fascinating.

DUNCAN AIKMAN is also an old-time writer. Although his book was actually about disreputable characters, rather than prostitutes, almost all of the woman in Calamity Jane and Other Lady Wildcats did occasionally resort to prostitution. Even so, many of these women were more famous for other pursuits, like Belle Starr, the renowned outlaw, and Pearl Hart, the “last lady road agent.”

One featured women, Bridget Grant, of Portland, Oregon, though, was conspicuously respectable. She merely shanghaied young men from her boarding house and sold them into seamanship, while raising nine children.Aikman approaches his subject with ribald humor, but his style soon becomes so flowery, and his words so copious, that the humor withers. By the time I was half-way through Calamity Jane’s story, I thought Aikman’s prose was a far greater calamity than Jane.

Try this sentence, for example: “From a delectable novelty, a vivid and genial allegory of an era’s hearty rowdiness, she would pass down-grade to become a jovial sot, the feminine equivalent of an old King Cole of the roistering western underworlds, the focus of a thousand meaty sagas and traditions, a hag of Rabelaisian glamor and burlesque eccentricities.”

Although, I suppose Aikman had something to say, I lost it in his barrage of words, and can’t honestly say I learned much of anything from his book.

Bancroft’s book, however, is short, sweet, fun and informative, with enlightening illustrations, including some of Salida.

Seagraves offers simple and readable text accompanied by beautiful photographs and numerous intriguing newspaper excerpts.

If you’re interested in learning a little about wild and weary women in the not so good old days, both Bancroft and Seagraves illuminate some captivating characters.

–Martha Quillen