Having in early life been shamefully seduced by a pretended suitor, and with her virginity, having lost all hopes of regaining her former state of respectability, she became a voluntary victim to VICE and joined a society of BAWDS…
This description is from a chapbook published in 1815 in New York City. It detailed the supposed true story of Louisa Baker who, after being seduced by a sailor in Boston, turned to prostitution, got fed up and ran away to serve three years in the U.S. Marines. Louisa was, for the most part, a fraud although she had a gift for storytelling. The spark of truth in her tale lies not in fabulous adventures dressed as a man but in the “shameful seduction” and “society of bawds” that led her to it.
From the very beginning New York was a major port and that meant it was, at any given time in any given century, full of sailors. As Luc Sante puts it in his engrossing book Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York: “New York being a port town, prostitution was probably there from the beginning, in waterfront groggeries and sailors’ hostels, and in the dance houses and groceries that grew up around the Collect pond and the Five Points.”
The groceries were a surprising early 19th century addition to the usual places a sailor might find a “disorderly woman”. When moderns think of a “grocery” we are thinking of the big concrete and steel box where carts are pushed under neon lights until, filled to capacity, they are emptied onto a conveyor belt, their contents paid for and repositioned in the cart which can then be wheeled out into the blessed sunshine. By the 1820’s in the U.S., however, a “grocery” was very different from a “market”. At the groceries one could find conversation among men, a stove to warm up by and liquor to warm the insides. Upstairs lived the girls and the grocery’s owner might very well run them for a huge cut of their meager income (on average equivalent to a modern dollar a week).
Once the grocery’s reputation was sufficiently tarnished, it was replaced in the 1840s by the “cigar store” where, to again quote Sante: “ … an uninitiated customer who entered would find a very meager stock of cigars and a shopkeeper, often female, who did not seem interested in selling them.” The girls were in the back or upstairs; anyone who knew the score would simply ask. This led to the problem of honest cigar sellers, who often employed comely young women as sales girls, being mistaken for brothels. Such mix-ups and tainted “good” girls set the Victorian heart a-flutter. The situation reached a head when Mary Rogers, a legitimate cigar store girl whose employer catered to the New York literati, turned up bloodless and floating in the river off the coast of New Jersey. In the panic caused by media coverage of the still unsolved murder, cigar stores went to seed – legitimate and otherwise. The affair is now remembered via a detective story by Edgar Allan Poe entitled “The Mystery of Marie Rouget”, which he based on the scandalous incident.
The kind of thing that had happened to Louisa Baker – seduction, fall, and finally taking up the mantel of prostitute – eventually became part of the business. In the 1870’s famous madams side-lighted as “procuresses”. They would send out hired men – some of them sailors unable to find a berth or disabled and incapable of returning to sea – to go into the rural areas and solicit farm girls and runaways. Much like the tactics of modern human traffickers, these “cadets” as they were called would offer the girls food, drink and pretty things until they finally got them into bed. Then the shoe was on the other foot and the girls were beholden to their new “boyfriends”. They would be whisked off to New York for a quick evaluation and finally either set up in the house of the madam in question or sold to another house for a profit. Most probably never saw the man they imagined cared for them again.
A surprising range of brothels were available, operating without much trouble in an era when hearing the word “prostitute” would make a lady faint. There were the “parlor houses” where men were expected to dress well, buy “nice” booze and each girl had her own room. One such house that was favored by officers in the U.S. and foreign navies was on 25th Street near 7th Avenue. This townhouse, one of seven in a row said to be run by sisters, featured accomplished girls who could play the pianoforte, sing and read. The officers were expected not only to pay but to bring gifts for the girls as well. The house was open 365 days a year and held “open houses” on Christmas and New Years with a special Christmas Eve party whose proceeds went entirely to local orphanages.
For the average sailor there was no private room, carpeted parlor or $10 bottle of champagne. So called “concert saloons” were more in their budget and these could be found from the Bowery down to Canal Street with a few of the most wretched right on the wharves. The girls here might not be all together prostitutes as sailors were encouraged to buy them overpriced drinks while the band played on. There were no rooms or curtained nooks for assignations; girls who wanted money for sex had to take their clients out to the alley or to their own hostel, if they had one. The names of the places told of their preferred clientele: Sailor’s Retreat, The Jolly Tar, Sinbad the Sailor, Flowing Sea Inn and The Mermaid are but a few.
If a Jack had a few extra in prize money jingling in his pocket, he might take himself to John Allen’s “free-and-easy” on Water Street. Established in the 1850’s, Allen’s place became notorious around the city not just for its status as a “bagnio” but for its tone of religious sensibility. Allen came from a family of preachers and, though he was the black sheep of his family, he brought his upbringing with him to his chosen profession. The cubicles at Allen’s had Bibles on the nightstands and the walls were decorated with iconic art. By contrast the girls were unabashed in their attire which was, for all intents and purposes, a uniform. Their just-below-the-knee length skirts were of bright red taffeta and their silk stockings were red as well. They wore tight lacing under shocking black satin bodices. Black boots, with red heels and jingle bells on the laces and red ostrich feathers in loose hair finished the effect.
Two girls from Allen’s ran off with their sailor lovers at the start of the Civil War. One’s name is lost but the other was called Long Mandy, evidently not because of her height but because of her narrow but unusually long feet for which Allen could not find a pair of his signature boots. The women were discovered aboard and the young sailors faced court martial. Because of the onset of the war, the boys remained in the Navy with only a reprimand and the incident was hushed up. Allen, on the other hand, would not have the girls back. What became of the unnamed girl is unknown but Mandy was stabbed to death behind The Mermaid on Canal Street. Doubtless those who read the two lines about her end in the Courier simply thought her a voluntary victim of vice, from a society of bawds.
Header photo: late 19th century prostitutes via Library of Congress