Soiled Doves:
Prostitution in the Early West

by Anne Seagraves
(Wesanne Publications, $11.95, PG) ISBN 0-9619088-4-X
If your interests are prurient, go someplace else because this book is not what you’re looking for. If, however, you are interested in a group of frontier women who are often overlooked, this book is for you. Soiled Doves is the story of the women who moved west looking for adventure or a better life, but who had no way of attaining their dreams except on their backs. Under Anne Seagraves’ gentle pen, these women come to life and their stories are haunting, if not heartbreaking.

Seagraves begins with a look at precisely why women were so valued in the early West - basically, because there weren’t any. She notes that the cowboys, trappers, and gold-seekers were so desperate for the sight of a female form that

“a youth in a Colorado mining camp paid twenty dollars in gold dust for the initial pancake made by the region’s first unmarried woman”.

And that was not uncommon. Into the raw land flocked thousands of unmarried women looking for wealth and personal freedom, but most were illiterate and inexperienced. They ended up forced into prostitution out of necessity.

As Seagraves deftly explains, there existed in the old West a sort of caste system among prostitutes. The high-class women worked in lavish “parlor houses” and bore more resemblance to courtesans than common whores. These “boarding houses” had servants, a bouncer, and a piano player. The “boarders” were pretty women in their twenties, and the madam was discreet. A step below these establishments were the brothels, found in the red-light districts, where the women were a bit older and a bit more dissipated. Still further down the list were the “cribs”, small, one-room shacks where women would live and work. Finally, the lowest and most dissipated prostitute would sink to the level of the “hog ranch”, a filthy, crude dwelling found along such thoroughfares as the Bozeman Trail, divided into tiny rooms. Cowboys and miners would drop in at will. This was the end of the line.

Stories of well-known madams and working women punctuate the book. Julia Bulette, a legendary prostitute with a heart of gold, received the most expensive funeral Virginia City, Nevada, had ever seen when she was murdered. Lottie Johl, a prostitute who married for love but was forever shunned by the women of Bodie, California, is perhaps the most poignant story. Even the constant devotion of her husband and years of good works couldn’t turn the tide of public perception. Calamity Jane, who spent more than a few years earning a trade as a prostitute, is featured here.

But perhaps the most tragic of all is the story of the Chinese slave girls, bought for pennies in China and sold to the highest bidder in San Francisco. Most would be dead by the age of twenty. Seagraves spends time on the story of a remarkable woman named Donaldina Cameron whose life mission was to save as many Chinese prostitutes as possible, even to the point of conducting raids on cribs while wielding an axe. Adored by the Chinese girls she saved, they called her “Lo Mo”, or “beloved mother”. By the time she died at the age of 99, she had rescued over 3,000 slave girls. Truly a remarkable tale.

In fact, the whole book is remarkable. Illustrated with rare photos, it’s a unique and special volume whose only flaw is that it’s not three times longer. Seagraves presents all of her stories in a respectful manner that neither condemns nor condones. Her role as a storyteller is clear, and no judgment is passed. I found her looser, somewhat conversational writing style to be the perfect presentation; under her guidance, the reader will feel she’s met these women and heard their tale firsthand. If you are interested in the history of the American West, and the often-ignored women who helped to settle it, don’t miss Soiled Doves.

--Cathy Sova

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