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6 "Thronged Thoroughfares" and "Quiet, Home-Like Streets" The Urban Geography and Architecture of Prostitution
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"Thronged Thoroughfares" and "Quiet, Home-Like Streets"
The Urban Geography and Architecture of Prostitution

[Prostitution] no longer confines itself to secrecy and darkness, but boldly strides through our most thronged and elegant thoroughfares, and there, in the broad light of the sun, it jostles the pure, the virtuous, and the good. It is in your gay streets and in your quiet, home-like streets; it is in your squares ... and summer resorts; it is in your theatres, your opera, your hotels; nay, it is even intruding itself into the private circles.[1]

William Sanger's description of the pervasiveness of prostitution gives a clear indication of how integrated prostitution had become in the geographic and social structure of New York City by the mid-nineteenth century. New York was different in this respect from large European cities, where prostitution was confined to specific areas of the community. In New York, no neighborhoods were exempt from the profession. It was found in "quiet, home-like streets" and "private circles" as well as in public places; in the neighborhoods of the rich as well as those of the poor.

New York's prostitution population had not always been so widespread throughout the community. In the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth century, practitioners of the profession tended to congregate in areas near the taverns and cheap lodging houses of New York City's dock area. More importantly, most prostitution at that time was hidden from public view. By the 1820s, however, the prostitution community began to disperse, spreading into a variety of residential and commercial neighborhoods. Prostitution also became so


blatant in its public display that by 1831 the Reverend John McDowall felt compelled to publish his Magdalen Report apprising the community that many of the over 10,000 prostitutes he estimated to be in the city were to be found in respectable neighborhoods, operating "under masks of boarding houses ... [and] shops of various kinds."[2] A few years later, in 1835, the Advocate of Moral Reform summarized the contemporary situation by noting that there was "an open and almost legalized existence of houses of prostitution everywhere in the city."[3] The Advocate's appraisal was confirmed by other observers, all of whom drew the same conclusion—prostitution had become very much a part of New York City life and was found in all areas of the city.[4] In the decades following the 1830s there would be periodic protests and efforts to control the profession in its most public aspects, but prostitution's pattern of citywide dispersal would remain basically the same until the last part of the century. Even when prostitution later became more concentrated in specific neighborhoods, it never returned to its eighteenth-century status as a geographically confined and little visible profession.[5]

In placing prostitution within the larger social context of New York City in the mid-nineteenth century, one finds that the demographic and geographic patterns characteristic of the profession at that time are very similar to those of the urban community as a whole. Antebellum New York not only lacked segregated red light districts, but it also was not characterized by other significant segregated population clusters, such as racial and ethnic ghettos. Interestingly, New York City's immigrant segregation lessened in this period as immigrant population increased. An index of the segregation of foreign-born inhabitants of New York City in 1855 was almost half what the index had been three decades earlier. Not until after the Civil War would New York develop the large segregated immigrant areas that were characteristic of some other major cities.[6]

Although black residential patterns were somewhat the reverse of those of foreign-born New Yorkers—racial segregation increased as the black percentage in the population decreased—blacks also continued to be represented in nearly all geographic areas of New York City through mid-century. In 1825 blacks represented 7 ½ percent of the population, while by 1860 they comprised only 1 ½ percent of the city's inhabitants. Although the largest concentration of blacks was found in wards five and


eight, no area of New York City in the antebellum period could be designated a black ghetto since black residents never comprised more than 12 percent of any ward's population.[7]

Just as there were always small concentrations of ethnic and black citizens in New York City, so were there pockets of poverty and extreme destitution. But economic segregation, like other forms, did not become prevalent in New York City until after the Civil War; rich and poor lived side-by-side, as did black and white, and native and foreign-born. Certainly, many wealthy citizens chose to live near each other, and some neighborhoods had "notable concentrations of wealth," but wealth was dispersed enough throughout the city that one could say at mid-century that at least half of the wards had a "gold-coast-and-slum" character. Local citizens as well as visitors to the city commented on the strange contrast of "costly luxury and improvident waste" with "squalid misery and hopeless destitution."[8] In spite of the diversity in its population and an increasing economic stratification of rich and poor, however, New York City retained a "social wholeness" unusual for an urban community of such large size.[9]

New York's integration of diverse populations was encouraged by the fact that a concept of restricted land use, or zoning, was not a part of the mid-nineteenth-century New York urban picture. In 1850 the commercial and industrial concentration in lower Manhattan was unmistakable, but every ward still had retail businesses, public markets, and dozens of small manufacturing establishments.[10] Consequently, commercial businesses, "vice" institutions, and private residences of the rich and poor were found next door to each other and continued to be established together as the city expanded north into new areas of Manhattan Island. This intermingling of diverse population sectors and institutions caused one newspaper editor to complain in 1841 that he could not stand "the strange and disreputable anomaly of theatres, churches, and houses of ill-fame all huddled up together in one small block."[11] Thirty years later, in spite of a few efforts toward urban planning, regulation, and reform, another New Yorker noted that the city's development was continuing in a haphazard fashion and that the "strange anomaly" of mixed classes and mixed land use still existed in New York: "Only a stone's throw back of the most sumptuous parts of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, want and suffering, vice and crime, hold


their courts. Fine ladies can look down from their high casements upon the squalid dens of their unfortunate sisters."[12]

The designation "unfortunate sisters" also included some women who did not live in squalid dens but who, nevertheless, appear to observers today out of place in their chosen neighborhoods. In the 1830s and early 1840s, one of New York's most elite areas, the fifth ward neighborhood around Park Place, Broadway, Warren, and Leonard streets, was only a block or two from several well-known brothels. Residents such as Philip Hone, former Mayor Walter Bowne, and merchant Cornelius Low had to walk a mere block to stand in front of a neighboring brothel.[13] New York social historian Charles Lockwood has noted that in the 1860s, prostitute Julia Brown operated a stylish prostitution establishment at University Place and Twelfth Street, where her immediate neighbors included James Lenox, a wealthy citizen whose library collection served as the foundation of the New York Public Library; merchant William H. Aspinwall; the socially elite Mrs. Peter A. Schemerhorn; Union Theological Seminary; and the New York Society Library. Julia Brown's close proximity to some of New York's wealthiest citizens and most august institutions reflected a certain tacit acceptance of prostitution as part of the urban landscape, but her presence in the neighborhood also probably went unchallenged because neither Brown's establishment nor her clientele were disruptive.[14]

Prostitute and non-prostitute also lived close together in the many poor tenements of the city. In most of these cases, the "work" of the prostitute was not hidden from view or practiced unobtrusively because "inmates know no such thing as privacy.... Within the same walls are gathered the virtuous and the depraved."[15] Describing the living situation in one of the multiple-roomed tenement houses, a mid-century reporter noted that one room, twelve feet by twenty, housed five families totaling twenty persons, but only two beds; a much smaller room nearby was home to a man, woman, and three children who helped pay their rent by allowing prostitutes to bring their customers there for their nightly business.[16] Another contemporary described a large building in ward six that had been subdivided into dozens of small "apartments" rented to the poor and the prostitute alike, where it was "not unusual for a mother and two to three daughters, all prostitutes, to receive men at the same time, in the same room."[17] In such indigent neighborhoods, geographic and social intimacy with prostitutes existed in part because


Lodging for the Poor. Nineteenth-century New York City's housing 
for the poor was crowded and miserable. Reformers were shocked that the 
city's poorest prostitutes were said to have serviced their customers in public 
lodging rooms such as this. (Courtesy American Antiquarian Society)

the poor and laboring classes accepted prostitutes as fellow citizens who needed some way to eke out a living in a depressed economic environment, but geographic intimacy also was a function of limited affordable housing options.

The degree of prostitution's integration within the community as a whole becomes even clearer, however, when one looks at residential configurations in mid-century censuses. Many brothels and prostitution boarding houses are interspersed among the homes of middle- and lower-middle-class families. It is most likely these prostitution establishments did not operate surreptitiously, since it would have been very difficult for several brothels on a street to conduct business without drawing the attention of neighbors, especially given that the locations of many were openly advertised in brothel directories. Prostitutes Eleanor Barrett and Caroline Cook lived on a block of Mercer Street


with several other brothels, but the block also housed the families of a chemist, druggist, broker, engraver, physician, importer, merchant, grocer, painter, music teacher, and two respectable boarding houses, one of which rented to male laborers. Margaret Brown owned a brothel with thirteen prostitutes, and her neighbors included a widowed Baptist clergyman, a lawyer with his son and a servant, and several merchants and their families. Prostitutes Emma Clifton, Jenny Grey, and Kate Rowe shared their block with a "psychologist" gentleman, several clerks, a blacksmith, a physician, marble cutters, female teachers, a hairdresser and family, and several boarding houses with families, one of which was a German establishment. Even in more intimate or shared housing situations such as renting rooms in one's own house, censuses further indicate that prostitutes were accepted as residents. The 1855 census records that millwright Lawrence Archer, his wife, and their seventeen-year-old son and twelve-year-old daughter had been landlords for more than two years to Ann Swift, whose occupation was listed as prostitute. They also had a servant living with them. Likewise, Kate Cannon and her fifteen-year-old son Leland boarded thirty-five-year-old prostitute Mary Lewis in their home.[18]

Although a general tolerance of prostitution as a part of urban living was one reason women like Ann Swift and Julia Brown lived openly and relatively hassle-free in most nineteenth-century New York neighborhoods, social historian Charles Lockwood has offered other explanations. In referring to Julia Brown's Twelfth Street establishment, he wrote: "The apparent ease with which prostitution could flourish in so select a location reflects the social strains of the time as well as patterns of urban development."[19] Perhaps a gradual process of urbanization might have reduced "social strains" and altered residential patterns, but with the population multiplying monthly during these decades, New Yorkers seemingly had little time for orderly urban development. Population pressures forced the city to expand physically, and New York's geographical limitation as an island necessitated that expansion be to the north. Either because of or in spite of the fact they were suffering from the "social strains" of a rapidly growing population and urban change, New Yorkers appeared to be very flexible about making residential shifts in responding to the city's growth, and they appeared to worry little about who their neighbors were.[20]


Another reason citizens' attitudes about neighborhood diversity seem so flexible is that nineteenth-century New Yorkers appear to have enjoyed, in fact thrived on, mobility—not establishing long-term roots in any household but happily changing residences and neighbors often.[21] New York prostitutes seem to have responded to the same mobility impulses as the general population, changing brothel locations and boarding situations frequently. Even though a stable location may appear to have been desirable for a brothel or an individual prostitute seeking repeat business from customers and a well-known business address, this business factor was not significant enough to keep prostitutes stationary very long. The desire to change locations seems to have outweighed the desire for stability. Several reasons, with both negative and positive implications, help explain this impulse.

Without a doubt, some prostitutes moved because of pressure from community individuals or the law. Some landlords, who unwittingly rented houses or rooms to prostitutes, evicted the women once the true nature of their establishments was discovered. Disorderly house cases illustrate that some neighbors also complained about prostitutes, and some of these women thought it wise to move to avoid a court hearing, fine, or possible incarceration. Pressure from the law, however, usually was in response to complaints, and the small number of disorderly-house cases suggests a relatively small number of neighbors' complaints. Still, in spite of few objections before the law, some prostitutes possibly moved because of other forms of harassment. Even though physical assaults on houses appear to have been as much a factor of prostitutes being females without male protectors as their being socially unacceptable neighbors, and even though many prostitutes responded to attacks by pressing charges in court, violence by street youths may have frightened some prostitutes into relocating.[22] But on the whole, one might conclude that in the absence of either rigorous legal restrictions or profound social pressures, prostitutes often made decisions to relocate for more positive reasons.

One such reason involved personal preference and business calculation: prostitutes were as interested as other New York residents in moving to new and more fashionable, or "better," neighborhoods. They also wanted to remain close to their clientele. Those prostitutes such as Julia Brown who catered to the middle and upper classes would relocate


along with their customers as new neighborhoods opened in the "advance guard north." As poorer residents moved to occupy the houses formerly inhabited by the more well-to-do, prostitutes who catered to the working classes also occupied vacant establishments in these areas.

Another reason nineteenth-century prostitutes moved frequently was that many of them, like other New Yorkers, celebrated the "May Day" custom. Although incomprehensible to many observers today, May Day, or moving day, was an "institution" in antebellum New York, practiced and apparently enjoyed by many citizens. Originating in the early Dutch colonial period, the custom continued well into the nineteenth century. According to tradition, February 1 marked the day residences were put on the market "to let and all go snoop in others' [houses]." On May 1 citizens moved to their new dwellings, illustrating, according to the New Era , the extreme "restlessness of New Yorkers who have no attachment to their homes."[23] In January 1837, the New Era also noted: "The period of the year is fast approaching when persons begin to look out for new residences, according to the custom of New Yorkers, not to remain under the same roof, more than twelve months."[24]

Several nineteenth-century diaries and records, including those of Philip Hone and George T. Strong, contain personal testimonies concerning the May Day practice. William Dunlap, playwright, theater manager, and artist, noted in his diary that he followed the May 1 moving day custom but was not a frequent participant: "Got my family removed to No. 64 Sixth Avenue by noon on this first of May 1832 after living in Leonard St., No. 55 for sixteen years."[25] When Dunlap moved out, prostitutes moved in, and 55 Leonard became a well-known brothel address for several decades afterward. Prostitute Caroline Ingersoll, a much more regular observer of the custom, testified about her moves during a divorce trial before the Superior Court:

I first came back to New York from Philadelphia. I went to reside at 355 Greenwich Street ... about a year and a half; I moved here in the fall; I left it on the first of May; the second first of May after I went there, I moved from that house to 628 Houston Street, and lived there about two years; I left that house on the first of May last, 1851; I went there the first of May and left it on the first of May [for 4 Murray Street].[26]

Tax records, city directories, censuses, and newspapers indicate that Ingersoll was not unique among prostitutes in being so mobile on May


Table 16
Residential Changes of Selected Brothel Keepers

Adeline Miller (Furman)

Phoebe Doty (d. 1850)




123 Anthony


167 Church


129 Anthony


32 Orange


167 Church


85 Cross


44 Orange


53 Crosby


9 Desbrosses


44 Orange


35 Leonard


39 Elm


29 Leonard


133 Reade


107 Mercer


44 Orange


12 Elm


— Mott


166 Church


39 Duane



133 Reade



134 Duane



130 Church



139 Church (last address)

Jane McCord



35 Warren



75 Duane

J. Ann Malloy

80 Reade




71 Mercer


112 Canal


633 Houston


112 Church


6 Staple


18 Mercer


56 W. Houston


155 W. Broadway


42 W. 15th


14 Mercer



24th Street


SOURCES : Record of Assessments, City Directories, Brothel Directories, Court of General Sessions Indictment Papers, Newspapers.

Day and other days. Table 16 illustrates the extent to which some madams or prostitution house keepers changed residential locations during their careers.

It is more difficult to trace the mobility of ordinary prostitutes who were inmates of brothels, but they too seem to have changed residences frequently. One 1860s source stated that the residents of brothels changed every two to three months.[27] If an ordinary prostitute continued in the employment of a particular madam, she moved with the house-


hold, but apparently many prostitutes were not, or did not feel, obligated to stay with a madam for very long. Many prostitutes left the profession altogether after a couple of years; others, like Helen Jewett, stayed in prostitution but looked for "change" by shifting to new locations. Although Jewett was killed at the young age of twenty-three, she had practiced prostitution in at least three different cities, and in the four to five years she was in New York, she lived in six different houses. All indications suggest that Jewett's changes, like those of many other prostitutes, were at her volition rather than that of madams or officials.[28] The frequent movement of madams and ordinary prostitutes from house to house was not as disruptive to the overall trade, however, as might first seem to be the case. Many addresses of prostitution houses became notorious because brothels remained in operation at the addresses for several decades even though the madams and prostitutes in these residences changed often (table 17).

Despite prostitutes' frequent relocation and their dispersal throughout the city, one can nonetheless pinpoint areas of prostitution activity that gained notoriety in different time periods and follow the geographic shifting of these regions in the decades between 1830 and 1870. Such findings probably overemphasize areas with brothels and prostitution boarding houses, as opposed to neighborhoods frequented by street-walkers, since the visible "temples of Venus" could be identified readily and represented to contemporary observers a localized vision of urban evils. Furthermore, the "brothel bias" is accentuated because addresses of known houses are easier for the historian to locate than the private rooms used by the floating and part-time prostitution population. However, as certain thoroughfares were famous for streetwalking activity, one can assume many of the prostitutes working these streets either used assignation rooms in the area or boarded nearby. A prostitute would not want to risk losing her time or a client's "ardor" by having to walk a couple of miles to her quarters before consummating her proposition. Still, there were many women who practiced prostitution on a part-time or casual basis—servicing the local men in their immediate neighborhoods or trading sex for money with male companions when the opportunity was available or when they were economically pinched. Because these women may have worked very privately in quiet neighborhoods where commercial sex was less prominent, their numbers would not be reflected in a prostitution-activity-area evaluation. And finally, although special


Table 17
Long-Term Prostitution Establishments

55 Leonard

28 Anthony


Mary Blaylock


Abby Meade/Meyer


Ann Welden


Rosina Thompson


Ann Miller


Ann Boyd


Julia Brown


Mrs. Thomas


Rosanna Turner


Mrs. Shott


Mrs. Lyons


Lavina Stafford


Francis O'Kille


Mary Ann Foster


Cinderella Marshall



Maria Adams



Rosina Styles (for Adams)



Maria Adams

39 Thomas



Eliza Smith



Caroline Andrews



Mary Wall

100 Church


Susan Scott


Rebecca Cooper


Mrs. Price


Jane Ann Jackson


Susan Shannon


Mary Benson


Mary Robinson


Julia Brown


Mrs. Smith/Clark


Harriet Brandley


Matilda Green


Susan Sweet


Mrs. Kelly


Emma Andrews



Dorothy Myers



Dorothy Myers

136 Duane



Mrs. Meyer



Jane Williams



Sarah Tuttle



Jane Wilson



Jenny Winslow



Mary Howard



Mrs. Bushnell

SOURCES : Record of Assessments, City Directories, Brothel Directories, Court of General Sessions Indictment Papers, Newspapers.


time periods and geographic areas of concentration can be delineated, such time-frames and areas appear to be more precise than they actually were, since the expansion or shifting of prostitution activity to a new area was a gradual process.

One can discern the geographical changes in New York's prostitution activity from the 1830s to the 1870s by dividing these years into roughly three periods. The first period, from 1830 to 1850, was the early period of expansion when prostitution "went public" and spread through lower Manhattan. Although prostitution activity moved inland, commercial sex establishments in the dock areas were not abandoned, and they continued to serve seamen, transients, dock laborers, and other poor males for the remainder of the century. The most famous area of prostitution in this early period was the Five Points and the sixth ward neighborhood surrounding it. Less raucous but equally well known to New Yorkers at the time was the area of parlor houses and prostitution boarding establishments in the side streets along Broadway, especially those on the thoroughfare's western side in wards five, eight, and the northern part of ward three.

In the second period, from 1850 to 1865, the Five Points was still considered the scene of much of the city's most debased prostitution activity, and sixth ward arrests for prostitution continued to lead those in other wards. In this decade and a half, prostitution in the Broadway West area showed the greatest expansion, both numerically and geographically, as it moved north toward Washington Square, shifting its locus from ward five to ward eight.

In the final period, from the end of the Civil War into the early 1870s, prostitution's main center of activity again shifted further to the north, to the area beyond Washington Square between Seventh Avenue and Lexington, with a few scattered houses as far north as Fortieth Street. Some prostitution activity continued in the older neighborhoods of the Broadway West district to the south, but prostitution declined and became less fashionable as commercial and industrial establishments and warehouses took over the area. Opposite the Broadway West district in south Manhattan, prostitution fanned out from ward six into adjacent wards to the north and east, into the Bowery East area. The Five Points was more a district of the poor than of vice in this final period, and prostitution no longer drew the great numbers of men to the vicinity that it had in earlier years. Prostitutes in the dock areas, especially along


Water Street, continued to find customers among neighborhood inhabitants and unwary transients, but New York residents considered the district not only a poor slum but also one of its most dangerous neighborhoods (see map, p. 97, for areas of concentration).

This overview of prostitution population shifts tracks geographic changes that can be illustrated both chronologically and cartographically. A much clearer understanding of prostitution mobility is gained, however, by focusing in depth on each neighborhood area, so that the social changes that accompanied geographic shifts become more evident.

The Dock Areas

Since New York was a preeminent port and shipping terminal throughout the nineteenth century, the dock areas along the East River and up the west side on the Hudson River continued to be populated with seamen, laborers, and travelers. Ships stopping at the New York port brought approximately 22,000 crewmen to the city in 1835 and approximately 66,000 in 1860.[29] Catering to these seamen, other transients, and dock workers, prostitutes attached themselves to the many drinking and lodging establishments that were crowded into the vicinity of the docks. Two waterfront districts were especially well known for prostitution activity in the period 1830 to 1870—the Water and Cherry streets area, in the fourth and seventh wards, and Corlears Hook, a point of land at the east end of Grand Street, also in the seventh ward. The Battery, the riverfront park at the tip of Manhattan Island, was a favorite promenade of streetwalkers in the colonial period and remained popular until the mid-nineteenth century.

Even though known to be riotous and disorderly, the Water-Cherry streets area in the 1830s and 1840s still housed some of New York's wealthiest families, especially along Cherry Street, where a number of substantial mansions were found. By the mid-1840s, however, most of the well-to-do had moved to other wards, and their once-grand residences were converted to tenements and brothels inhabited by poorer citizens.[30] Dock area streets also were filled with saloons and their attached prostitution quarters, usually second-story rooms above the


saloons. In some saloons the basement was used for dancing, and these dance houses became famous for their raucous activity. Prostitution and drinking establishments on one street in this area were so numerous they were said to be "standing almost cheek by jowl—more than forty of them in a single half-mile stretch."[31] After mid-century, all commentators agreed that women practicing prostitution in the Water-Cherry streets area had sunk to the lowest depths of prostitution, becoming "living corpses."[32] Having made the final descent to Water Street, a prostitute "almost immediately ... falls a victim to the terrible scourge of these places. Disease of the most loathsome kind fastens itself upon her, and she literally rots to death."[33]

Prostitution at Corlears Hook, northeast of Water and Cherry streets, had a similar reputation for degradation. Long known as an area of prostitution, "the Hook" has been proposed as the origin of the slang term hooker .[34] The district known as the Hook was located mostly in Walnut Street, a seven-block-long thoroughfare. Like prostitutes of the other dock areas, the women of the Hook were described as "bloated with rum and rotten with disease," and they occupied themselves "chewing snuff, smoking tobacco, and eating opium, ... exposed to every description of brutality and victims of every kind of excess. "[35] Because of the clientele of seamen and dock workers, the area was known to be rough, and it retained a reputation for low prostitution and drinking throughout the century. Yet it is difficult to determine how much of the vice-ridden and "low" reputation earned by the Hook and Water-Cherry streets areas was a function of their poverty and squalor and how much was a function of vice and corruption. There is also some abstraction in contemporary descriptions of such places, as if they were less observed locations than comfortably isolated moral locuses for all the broad evils urban observers both feared and found fascinating. As would be the case in other parts of New York as the century progressed, often those areas that became centrally defined by their poverty also became famous as centers of vice.[36]

The Five Points

Even more vital as a circumscribed symbol of all the new urban dangers was New York's most notorious nineteenth-century pros-


15 and 16.
Two Views of the Five Points. These two nineteenth-century prints 
of the notorious Five Points illustrate the variety of characters said to congregate 
in this neighborhood, an area known for both licentiousness and poverty. 
(Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)


titution area, the Five Points, a small commercial vice district in the sixth ward. Located on the site of a former swamp, the neighborhood became known throughout the United States and Europe as America's "most famous slum." To New Yorkers, it also was the symbol of all that was degenerate, debauched, and sinful in the city. The Five Points, which was formed by and got its name from the intersection of five streets, did not exist until the second decade of the century, when the Collect Pond was landfilled, and streets and structures were built over the site.[37] Attracting vice activities of all types, the Points was one of the first places to which prostitutes moved after dispersing beyond the dock areas.

Contemporaries who wrote about the Five Points could find little that was redeeming about the neighborhood. "Mere words can convey but a faint idea of the Five Points," maintained one mid-century writer, though his and others' descriptions seem to give a pretty good indication of the depth of their feelings: "sink of iniquity," "plague spot," "nest of vipers," "hell of horrors," "that infected district," "the great central ulcer of wretchedness," and "the very rotting Skeleton of Civilization, [from] whence emanates an inexhaustible pestilence that spreads its poisonous influence through every vein and artery of the whole social system."[38] Respectable New Yorkers clearly enjoyed believing that the Five Points was the receptacle housing all of the city's human garbage.

At the crossroads of the Five Points was a one-acre triangular plaza with the euphemistic title of Paradise Square. Emanating out from this park, the streets of the Five Points were lined with gambling dens, lottery offices, liquor stores, pawnbrokers, second-hand dealers, and all of the institutional forms of prostitution: brothels, cheap lodging houses, saloons, dance halls, and theaters. The concentration of this type of business establishment in the area prompted one contemporary to say that "nearly every house ... is a groggery below and a brothel above"— a comment that had some truth in it, since during the decade of the 1830s almost two-thirds of the forty-three blocks surrounding the Five Points housed prostitutes on at least one occasion.[39]

Structures at the Five Points had been crowded into every conceivable open space along the quarter's streets and alleyways, and about one-third of them were constructed of wood and were very ramshackle. Inside the buildings, prostitute and non-prostitute poor residents were crammed into every nook and cranny, giving the Five Points at mid-century the highest density of population in the city, twice as great as in the rest of the sixth ward. Because of the establishments' appearance and activities,


many of the Five Points' buildings were given sinister names by which they became well known to contemporary New Yorkers and out-of-town visitors such as Charles Dickens. Cut-Throat Alley, Squeeze Gut Alley, Bagler's Alley, Cow Bay, Diving Bell, Swimming Bath, and Arcade were some of the "hotbeds of debauchery, wretchedness, and poverty" along Orange, Anthony, Little Water, and Cross streets.[40] Philip Hone described the establishments on Orange Street as "abodes of filth, destitution, and intemperance, . . . where water was never used internally or externally, and the pigs were contaminated by the contact of the children." Using his swine analogy more than once in reference to Orange Street, Hone also said that the street's inhabitants suffered "from personal neglect and [were] poisoned by eating garbage which a well-bred hog on a Westchester farm would turn up his snout at."[41]

The descriptions of respectable contemporaries illustrate not only their objections to the immoral and vice-ridden Five Points residents but also their disdain for other large population groups that were housed in the community: the poor, blacks, and immigrants. Given the biases against these groups, it is often difficult to distinguish between situations that indicated blatant depravity and those that were indicative of extreme destitution, unfamiliar customs, and racially integrated social activities. Articles in the Sun in May 1834 illustrate this descriptive confusion. Writing about the Points during several days of May and June, an editor of the Sun noted it was a "resort of vagrants, vagabonds, and crime," "of indecency, squalid poverty, and intemperance," where people "riot and revel in continued orgies, and sober humanity is shocked and horrified. People are constantly attacked and robbed."[42] This initial appraisal was followed by a visit to the Five Points and a first-hand account of what was seen. According to the journalist, those who live in and near the Five Points "endure literally, a hell of horrors, arising from their poverty and wickedness, such as few others on earth can suffer." Houses known as the locations of prostitution activities were said to be divided and subdivided into numerous small and comfortless apartments, "the inmates sleeping or lying on heaps of filthy rags, straw, and shavings, the stench from which was almost insupportable . . . white women, and black and yellow men, and black and yellow women with white men, all in a state of gross intoxication, and exhibiting indecencies, revolting to virtue and humanity."[43] Prostitution at the Five Points was promiscuous, unrefined, and interfacial, and it thus offended respectable citizens. Sixth ward vagrancy/prostitution arrests at mid-century, which


were almost totally of immigrants and blacks, also indicate that officials saw little distinction between public immorality and the poor, the immigrant, and the black. Offering an interesting counterpoint to these descriptions is Carol Groneman-Pernicorn's analysis of the 1855 census, which reveals that the resident population of the Five Points was not primarily young, unattached individuals as one might suspect; rather, the area's residents were actually slightly older than in the rest of the city and more likely to be married.[44]

Although the Five Points retained its reputation as a "haunt of vice, debauchery, and misery" for the remainder of the century, by the Civil War many citizens became more aware of the fact that the area's population was most distinguished by its poverty. After 1850, groups such as the Ladies Home Mission Society moved into the Five Points and bought property formerly housing disreputable establishments. Offering job training and wages as well as redemption, they worked to change the Five Points. The northward movement of commercial development also helped alter the area.[45] Whatever the reasons for change, by 1860 many residents no longer viewed the neighborhood as the city's center of sin. After conducting a house-by-house survey of the major streets of the vicinity in 1860, Samuel B. Halliday, a Five Points House of Industry missionary, noted that the Five Points no longer fit its stereotype. Strangers, he said, often assume the district is simply a collection of brothels, but his firsthand observations led him to conclude that "the number of abandoned women is very much smaller than those familiar with the region have supposed."[46] Less than a decade later, James McCabe described the Five Points as "the realm of Poverty. Here want and suffering, and vice hold their courts. . .. Yet, bad as it is, it was worse a few years ago. There was not more suffering, it is true, but crime was more frequent here."[47]

The Bowery East

Although prostitution at the Points declined somewhat, it remained significant in other parts of the sixth ward. Not far away, the Bowery, the favorite promenade of the working-class Bowery b'hoys and g'hals, also was the favorite thoroughfare of many poor streetwalking


prostitutes, who looked to working-class males for their customers.[48] After the Civil War, prostitution expanded beyond the region surrounding the southern end of the Bowery, moving into ward ten and the southern part of ward seventeen, or the Bowery East area. Although more significant later in the century, this enclave was characterized mostly by immigrant and working-class prostitutes and clientele. A contemporary described east-side prostitutes by saying:

The principal difference between them and their sisters of the west side is the fact that they are of a lower order, not so good-looking, and attire themselves in a very gaudy and showy manner in order to attract the attention of the passer-by. . .. There are many foreign girls on the east side—the Germans and the Irish predominating.[49]

Prostitutes in the Bowery East were patronized mostly by seamen, mechanics, workingmen, "fourth-rate actors and the Bowery b'hoys."[50] Many New Yorkers considered the Bowery East to be a "closed and insular world, most of whose inhabitants worked, shopped, and played close to where they lived."[51] Since play included commercial sex, local working-class prostitutes met the demands of their neighborhood.

Broadway West

Less famous to out-of-towners than the Five Points, but well known to nineteenth-century New Yorkers, was the Broadway West area of prostitution. Seemingly spilling out of the western sixth ward into the fifth ward and the northern part of the third ward, prostitution then flowed northward into ward eight and the western part of ward fourteen. Prostitution in this district was almost exclusively parlor houses, prostitution boarding houses, and assignation establishments. Catering to local residents, to travelers who lodged in the hotels only a block or two away on Broadway, and to patrons of the theaters and other amusement institutions, this region contained most of New York's finest prostitution establishments from the 1830s until the Civil War.[52] The vicinity also contained many modest prostitution establishments, as well as some very "low" ones, and it attracted prostitutes from a variety of economic situations who, as streetwalkers, strolled up and down Broadway and its side streets looking for customers to take to some nearby room.[53]


During the period when prostitution flourished most in this area, Broadway and the adjacent streets also contained some of New York's most elite residences and most prominent citizens as well as a cross section of the city's blacks, immigrants, and poor. No part of New York better exemplified mixed land use. Churches were across the street from brothels, police stations were next door, and, when the National Theatre was destroyed by fire in 1841, it toppled onto the brothel of Julia Brown, partially destroying that establishment and killing one resident prostitute. Columbia College, New York's oldest institution of higher education, was surrounded by brothels housing black and white prostitutes, and the great commercial establishments of Broadway served as a backdrop for a large proportion of the city's streetwalkers. Interspersed among all these institutions were the homes of respectable New Yorkers.

As prostitution expanded northward between 1830 and 1870, the largest and most fashionable centers of parlor houses gave way gradually to neighborhoods further uptown. Brothel directories and other sources confirm this trend in both their brothel appraisals and numbers of houses listed in each ward. Through the 1840s, the fifth ward section of Broadway West had the greatest concentration of fashionable prostitution houses, but by the 1850s and early 1860s, ward eight and the southern part of ward fifteen below Washington Square surpassed ward five in brothel numbers and clientele status.[54] In the late 1860s, ward eight and the northern part of the Broadway West district experienced decline, as centers of prostitution activity continued to move northward. By 1870, Greene, Mercer, and Wooster streets, which only a few years earlier housed some of New York's finest brothels, were described as "a complete sink of iniquity." Within the area of six square blocks there were said to be forty-one houses of the "third class" or lower. "The scenes enacted here, the filth and turmoil would lead a stranger to suppose that he was in Baden Baden, or that old Sodom and Gomorrah had risen from their ashes to greet the sun once more." By the 1860s, ward eight also became known for concentrations of black prostitution houses.[55]

Washington Square North

The region of prostitution that became most notorious after the Civil War was the Washington Square North area. Following


the migration of the general population up the island, some prostitutes had moved into the vicinity of Fifth Avenue and Twelfth Street as early as the late 1850s. By 1870 a few houses of prostitution were found as far north as Fortieth Street, but the greatest concentration was from Twenty-Second to Twenty-Seventh Streets, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue on the east, and Seventh Avenue on the west. This area would become famous as New York's Tenderloin district, home to the seven brothels along West Twenty-Fifth Street that would be known as "the Seven Sisters." Another area of concentration was around Union Square and the vicinity of Fourteenth Street, which was later referred to as the Rialto. This neighborhood had attracted many of the city's wealthiest citizens in the late 1840s and the 1850s, and after the Civil War it remained a location of some of the best places of leisure and amusement for the upper classes.[56]

Most of the prostitution in the Washington Square North area was housed in magnificent brownstone row houses. These structures were decorated even more elaborately and luxuriously than had been their sister institutions in the Broadway West vicinity a decade or two earlier. As one contemporary noted:

The furniture and appointments of the house[s] are of the most elegant description. Everything is there that money can procure which will gratify the eye or charm the senses. . .. The parlors are the same as those of any fashionable mansion on Fifth or Madison avenue, and in furnishing them it is aimed to make them look as nearly like the parlors of the fashionably respectable houses as can be.[57]

Although prostitution would continue to expand northward, moving into many new neighborhoods, the Washington Square North area would remain New York's predominant district of prostitution into the twentieth century.

The Prostitute's Workplace

Nineteenth-century New York neighborhoods contained a variety of institutions from which prostitutes plied their trade. No longer feeling bound by the secrecy that was required of their eighteenth-


century sisters, New York's nineteenth-century prostitutes also did not feel restricted to the same institutions primarily used by eighteenth-century prostitutes for marketing their profession: taverns and waterfront lodging houses. This diversification in commercial sex institutions was both a contributor to and result of prostitution's geographic and social expansion throughout the New York community.

Nineteenth-century prostitution institutions can be classified as either primary or secondary. The primary institutions, such as the brothel, the prostitution boarding house, and the assignation house, were established for the express purpose of marketing sex, and a male (or female) sought out one of these residences with that objective in mind. Although buying or selling sex might also be the primary motive of people attending other entertainment institutions, such as saloons, theaters, concert halls, and dance halls, these establishments ostensibly served other commercial functions, and prostitution was available as a secondary activity. Primary sexual institutions were residential in nature and were most often managed by female proprietors, while the secondary institutions featured leisure or entertainment and were predominantly operated by males.

The most common primary institution of prostitution was the brothel, also known as a parlor house, bawdy house, disorderly house, whore-house, bordello, bagnio, or seraglio.[58] Structurally, the brothel was most often a row house (New York's architectural answer to limited, expensive land space), a narrow, several-storied residence linked to neighboring structures. The brothel usually had a parlor or living room for receiving and entertaining guests, with one to three floors of bedrooms above. In lower-class brothels the parlor or living room was a bar-reception room. Row houses served as brothels, prostitution boarding houses, rooming houses, assignation houses, and tenements, which allowed them to blend in with the houses of ordinary neighborhood citizens.

In its purest form, the parlor-house brothel was inhabited by from two to possibly twenty prostitutes who were managed by a madam in a communal or family-type arrangement. The madam and the prostitutes worked together as a "team," creating the house's ambience and reputation, though individual prostitutes might be well enough known to attract their own customers. Since the parlor house was both a workplace and residence, meals were provided, as was domestic service. The mad-


am functioned as household mistress, chief social hostess, and business manager. As business manager, she was responsible for paying all household bills. In some cases she may have been the recipient of all of the income of the house, granting each prostitute room, board, and a salary for her services. However, sources that elaborate on the financial practices of New York City brothels indicate that the madam seldom had total control over the receipts of the house, and prostitutes were not salaried; instead, they appear to have paid a weekly fee for room and board and then shared customer profits with the madam, or else they paid her a per-guest fee for each customer entertained.[59] This individual payment of room and board was one characteristic that caused many parlor house brothels to be referred to as prostitution boarding houses, a blurring of two institutional types that were popular in this period.[60]

The prostitution boarding house developed at the time that respectable boarding houses became popular in New York City. Just like individuals or families in respectable boarding houses, prostitutes rented separate rooms from the housekeeper but dined in common with the other resident prostitutes. Theoretically, the boarding house had less of a "team approach" than did the parlor house, since each prostitute was responsible for recruiting her own customers, but in practice, boarding prostitutes also serviced customers who knew of the existence of the boarding house but came without being recruited by a particular prostitute. A boarding house keeper, like a brothel madam, most likely charged the boarders a fee per customer and shared in the profits of liquor sales. Although a prostitution boarding house might not rent exclusively to prostitutes, in most cases a respectable woman would not wish to rent at such a house for fear of risking her good name. Many madams referred to their brothels as "boarding houses," and they also established their businesses along the same principles as respectable boarding houses, muddling the terminology but taking advantage of the camouflage of respectability for the illicit operations of the house. Many brothels outwardly appeared as ordinary boarding houses to neighbors and authorities, and they were listed in city directories along with their reputable counterparts. Consequently, the distinctions between reputable and disreputable boarding houses were completely lost to the casual observer, and the operational distinctions between parlor-house brothel and prostitution boarding house ultimately disappeared. The term parlor


house eventually came to designate an exclusive and finely furnished brothel, as opposed to a lower-class or more commonplace brothel.[61]

The third type of primary prostitution establishment—the assignation house—also eludes precise definition because of the variety of functions it served. Theoretically, an assignation house was not a prostitution house, but a bedroom establishment where illicit and adulterous lovers could meet for a tryst. Rooms could be rented for a short period—a few hours or overnight. The most important characteristic of an assignation house was secrecy, so that couples could be assured that their identities would never be known to others inside or outside the house. Many assignation houses, like upper-class parlor houses, were lavishly decorated, with special attention given to the furnishings in the bedroom quarters. The parlor was not a communal entertaining room but served as a private waiting room until an individual or couple could be taken to a bedroom.[62] It was said that if prostitutes were allowed to patronize assignation houses, then the so-called respectable clientele would shun the establishments. This may have been true of some patrons, but on the whole New York's assignation houses appear to have been well-integrated into the commercial sex structure, and business did not suffer because of it. Streetwalkers frequently used assignation houses for their prostitution activities, and there are numerous examples of assignation houses having a few prostitutes as permanent residents to serve patrons who were seeking prostitution in an establishment less notorious than a regular brothel. Some men found that, when having an extended liaison with a prostitute or non-prostitute, an assignation house offered both private and convenient quarters for lodging the "kept woman," while other men rented assignation rooms on a long-term basis so that a private room would be immediately available for use whenever wanted.[63]

Although assignation houses were in plentiful supply and were increasingly popular during the period from 1830 to 1870, one should note that alternative establishments were also utilized by prostitutes as the century progressed. In effect, an assignation house functioned as a very private hotel and was particularly convenient since the early Broadway hotels resisted prostitutes as patrons. After the Civil War, discreet prostitutes found the large hotels not so reluctant to take their business, and some of New York's more sophisticated prostitutes were able to use even the most fashionable Broadway hotels for servicing clients. James Mc-


Cabe noted in 1872 that "impure women of the 'higher,' that is the more successful class . . . abound at the hotels. The proprietor cannot turn them out unless they are notorious . . . for fear of getting himself into trouble."[64] Bed houses and furnished rooming houses also became popular with some independent prostitutes who were attracted to the privacy gained by avoiding the boarding arrangements of the more common multiple-resident dwellings. The disadvantage of such an arrangement was that prostitutes had to worry about their own meals. At the bottom end of the scale, prostitutes worked out of tenement houses, often sharing crowded quarters with non-prostitute residents.[65]

Although panel houses are sometimes mentioned as an additional form of residential sex institution, in reality they were a form of brothel or assignation house to promote thievery. One or more rooms of a brothel or a bed house might be furnished with a curtain, wall, or movable panel from which another prostitute or a partner-in-crime could gain entry into the locked bedroom. While the customer was occupied in bed, the intruder would steal from the client's pants pocket. The sex-for-money exchange had a new twist, but the institutional structure of the establishment remained the same.[66]

In spite of the fact that New York's primary sex institutions were numerous, and their existence and locations were well known to many citizens, it was the public, undisguised presence of prostitutes in secondary sex institutions and public thoroughfares that made the profession so visible and seemingly pervasive throughout the urban social structure. Here prostitution moved openly in the public arena for all but the most naive or sheltered eye to see. Although some prostitutes remained discreet, for most prostitutes secondary sex institutions were public forums for sexual solicitation. Both male patrons and prostitutes attended the theater, the saloon, concert hall, or dancing hall expecting an evening of good entertainment but also an opportunity to buy or sell sex.

The theater was the most popular of New York's entertainment institutions, and its connection with commercial sex was unmistakable because of the designation of the third tier as the exclusive province of prostitutes and their male suitors or friends. Just as mid-century New York led the nation in other fields, it also led the nation in numbers of theaters, and these establishments catered to all classes of the population. Although theaters like the Bowery had greatest appeal to boisterous


masses such as the Bowery B'hoys, while the Park and Broadway theaters attracted a more refined clientele represented by Philip Hone and George Templeton Strong, all theaters had their prostitute population.[67] According to mid-nineteenth-century physician Charles Smith, "a particular set habitually and constantly frequent the third tiers of the theaters. There may be two hundred in all who nearly every night are seen at the Park, Broadway, Bowery, Olympic and Chatham theatres." Smith also noted that the character of the "ladies" in the third tier varied with the house, just as did that of the regular audience. "The Park and Broadway are genteel and formal; the Olympic, bizarre and grotesque; and the Bowery and Chatham, sensual, bold and roystering."[68] According to Smith there were three places a prostitute could appear in the theater—the third tier, the gallery (if thickly veiled), and the stage. The rest of the house was "considered sacred even by the third tier [who] won't allow one of their own to appear elsewhere if they know it."[69] An incident reported by Madam Mary Berry about three prostitutes from her brothel indicates that Smith may have been right about a "common code of theater behavior." As Berry related the tale: "Hannah Blisset and lady Elizabeth stole out last night, and graced the Richmond Hill Theatre with their presence. They went in the first tier of boxes, got gloriously drunk, and were turned out. . .. English Ann was going to whip the pair."[70]

New Yorkers generally understood that the third tier was a meeting place for prostitutes and their clients. Prostitutes made arrangements to join their customers of long standing at the theater, but they also made new client contacts there, both in the third tier and at the nearby bar that serviced their gallery. Some men went up to the third tier without previous arrangements in order to look over the prospects, while others were taken by mutual friends to be introduced to a prostitute.[71] A prostitute hoped to be escorted home by a customer at the end of the performance, or even better, to be taken out to dinner before going home. Sometimes suitors were impatient about waiting until the end of the evening. Prostitute Louisa Wilson met a man in the third tier of the Park who asked her to leave in the middle of the performance and accompany him to a house behind the theater, where he paid her a $2.50 retainer. They returned for the remainder of the performance and then left for her brothel.[72]


Third Tier of the Park Theatre. This 1822 watercolor of the Park Theatre,
 which clearly shows the "ladies of the third tier," includes actual portraits of eighty-
four well-known New York figures. One of the patrons in the second tier was Jake 
LeRoy, who shocked New Yorkers by his highly visible relationship with prostitute 
Fanny White. (Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)


Prostitute Mary Steen entertained a customer at her brothel on Chapel Street early one evening, and afterward he suggested they catch the performance at the Park Theatre. Steen said she and her "girls" were in the habit of going to the Bowery because they liked the manager there, so her escort consented and bought two tickets for the third tier of the Bowery. During the performance Steen slipped away to the bar, where her date shortly discovered her drinking with another man. She refused to return to her date, apparently because she was trying to line up a second commission for the evening. Later, the spurned escort spotted her in an adjoining box and was so enraged he attacked her with a pen knife, cutting up the sleeve of her dress.[73] Such disruptive and rowdy behavior was not unusual in the third tiers of theaters and often triggered complaints from the rest of the house. There are several instances of prostitutes having men arrested for tearing their clothes or bonnets, and one third-tier frequenter had a man arrested for trying to kiss her.[74] More often, however, arrests were made for prostitutes fighting with each other or being drunk and disorderly.[75]

Another complaint from theater patrons was that the numerous prostitutes attending the theater "enter by the same door as the chaste."[76] Contemporary George Foster lamented that prostitutes "come up the same steps and stairs as our wives, and into the same lobby."[77] Although a separate stairway for prostitutes was incorporated into the building design of many nineteenth-century theaters in other cities, this feature was late in coming to some of New York's biggest theaters, which sometimes required remodeling to add a staircase on the outside of the building.[78] Even though the third tier and, later, the special stair separated prostitutes from the general public, there was a limit to the isolation of prostitutes. When the manager of one of the city's dramatic establishments erected a partition to shut off the prostitutes from other patrons altogether, "he soon yielded to the dreadful necessity of the stage, and the protest of this class, and removed the partition."[79]

Nineteenth-century newspapers and contemporary accounts note how frequently prostitutes attended the theater, but to credit this popularity primarily to the desire or need to solicit clients is to ignore the full dimensions of the prostitute's working life. With the prostitute's workplace and residence the same, the theater offered a way to "get out of the house." It was also a place where her presence was not legally questioned. Furthermore, the theater was one of the opportunities a


prostitute had for escape, for vicariously experiencing the lives of others. For those who were illiterate and did not have the alternative option of reading magazines and popular novels, the theater may have been especially important. Theater attendance was also a social occasion—a way to meet new people or old acquaintances in an environment not necessarily associated with sex. Many theaters opened the third tier one to two hours prior to the performance, which allowed prostitutes a longer time to socialize with fellow prostitutes and male friends—while increasing the bar revenues for the house. The early entry hour also was a way to avoid the complaints of respectable patrons who preferred not to mix with the unchaste.[80]

Documents pertaining to the life of Helen Jewett repeatedly attest to the importance of the theater in the lives of Jewett and her fellow prostitutes. In the Jewett correspondence there are twenty-three letters in which some reference is made to the theater, usually in the context of meeting a client or lover at the Park Theatre, of which Jewett was a devoted patron. (See Appendix 2 for a full explanation of the Jewett correspondence.) One letter discussed a man's failure' to get Jewett together with one of his friends at the end of the previous night's performance. The intended acquaintance had hoped to "escort her home," but there was a misunderstanding. The same client/friend wrote two other letters mentioning the theater—one of which asked why Jewett left the playhouse without him the night before, without even saying goodbye. Jewett apparently had gone to the theater with the friend, had become perturbed, and left in a carriage with fellow prostitutes from other brothels.[81]

Most of the letters to and from Jewett's lover discussed the couple's hoping to see, or failing to see, one other on various evenings at the theater. While the letters were solicitations to meet together at the playhouse or at her brothel, the relationship was of long enough duration that attendance at the theater was a social outing for the couple as well as an attempt by Jewett to have the lover's company at the brothel afterward.[82] In one letter Jewett indicated she went to the theater for two nights in a row hoping to see the lover; failing, she wrote with some irony and humor:

You will think I have degenerated sadly to go to the theatre two nights in succession, but to tell you the truth, the sole inducement in going last night


was the pleasure I anticipated from seeing you, in which you are aware I was disappointed.[83]

On another occasion, Jewett wrote that she had failed to persuade a male acquaintance, to whom her lover wished to be introduced, to meet her at the theater that evening. Even though she was unable to arrange the introduction for her lover, she stated: "I wish you would drop in there tonight, as I am going quite early." Her reference to her early attendance at the theater is a further indication of the prostitutes' enjoyment of the theater's "third tier social hour."[84]

Jewett also kept up with the Park's performance schedule and made an effort to attend those shows that promised to be special. In June of 1835 she wrote:

Tonight is Chapman's farewell benefit at the Park. I have an engagement to go with Clara, and if you get in town, and my letter in season, you will have arrived most opportunely, for then we may expect the pleasure of your company.[85]

On another occasion she hoped ill health would not keep her away from a promising performance:

I am quite unwell this morning, and unable to go out. Wallack plays tonight in two of his best pieces, and I should very much like to go, and hope by evening to feel well enough. You know it will be Saturday night, and I do not ask you to promise, but may I expect you to bring me home?[86]

Jewett also appeared to have some personal associations among theater personnel. She once wrote to her lover teasingly: "I had a little private chat with the manager of a certain theatre since you have been gone; which, however, I intend to explain and obtain entire absolution for."[87] She also entertained another theatrical personage as a client and received letters from him discussing dramatic and literary affairs. In December 1835 "J. J. A. S." wrote:

I went last evening with my good lady and her daughter, to watch the performance of Reeve, but we were all much disappointed. . .. I hope you will pardon the shortness of this feeble attempt to assure you of my regard for you. It is not the want of friendly sentiment, but of time, as I am now busily engaged with Simpson, the manager, in bringing forward a drama, of which I am the humble author.[88]


Many prostitutes were connected to actors and actresses, and the comment of Chapel Street madam Mary Steen that she liked the Bowery manager because he was a "clever fellow" may have indicated she knew him more than just by reputation.[89]

The open toleration of prostitutes at New York's dramatic establishments left no doubts in the minds of many that theatrical institutions were immoral. Many parents were certain that unchaperoned attendance at the theater meant that a daughter would become a prostitute— or already had become one. Thus, if a girl were found in one of the city's playhouses, parents sometimes had her arrested and sent to the House of Refuge.[90] One young man, who said he "accidentally" had gone into the third tier, discovered his sister there and had her taken to the police station.[91] The Advocate of Moral Reform believed that theaters were responsible for corrupting not just young women but also New York's children. They reported that girls as young as ten and eleven were in the habit of attending the third tier of the Franklin Theatre "for purposes of prostitution," and young boys of similar ages were found there with them. The Advocate also reported that one officer had said that girls from as young as three to thirteen (italics mine) had been found in the third tier. Given such information, it is not surprising that some observers believed that the increasing immorality of the entire city could be traced to its dramatic establishments.[92] As one editor wrote:

To the theatres of this city, above all other places, is the iniquity that abounds to be traced. . .. They are sinks of vice and pollution—houses of assignation and incipient prostitution—in four words, The Vestibules of Hell![93]

Whether it was the fact that prostitutes frequented the theater or a belief that the clientele and productions induced licentiousness in others, many people shunned the theater as an immoral establishment. One nineteenth-century scholar of the theater went so far as to estimate that seven-tenths of the population in mid-century America looked on attendance at the theater as a sin.[94]

Public condemnation of the third tier ultimately led to a movement to have prostitutes banned from New York's theaters, but either the prostitute's presence was not deemed offensive enough or her patronage was found to be too financially important to allow such legislation to pass.[95] Nevertheless, by the end of the 1850s the third tier as a place where prostitutes could solicit clients had begun to disappear. According


to William Sanger, "many of the managers of our best theatres have abolished the third tier . . . and if any improper woman visits them she must do so under the assumed garb of respectability and conduct herself accordingly."[96] Even after the demise of the third tier in the period after the Civil War, New Yorkers commented on the continued importance of prostitutes' attendance at the theater. By this time, however, it appears prostitutes had come to prefer matinee performances to evening shows. One 1869 source noted that New York prostitutes "entirely support the theatre matinees," and another 1860s commentator pointed out that the attendance of prostitute patrons was important to theaters throughout the East: "In some instances in Eastern cities, in addition to free admissions, messengers have been sent to the haunts of vile women, to invite their attendance as the necessary attraction of a large and indispensable portion of the patrons of the stage."[97] Whether "under the assumed garb of respectability" or not, the prostitute's attendance at the theater remained important to the American stage in the postwar era.

No other secondary institutions appear to have had as wide an appeal to the prostitution population as did the theater, but various other entertainment establishments were popular with many of these women, whose presence in turn was a draw for male patrons. Taverns, groggeries, and saloons had long served as complementary establishments to the prostitution business. Eighteenth-century prostitutes entertained their customers in small rooms behind or above saloons, or they picked up clients in the vicinity of public taverns and took them to nearby lodging houses for sexual transactions. As prostitution spread throughout the city in the nineteenth century, however, new varieties of public leisure developed just as did new forms of residential prostitution. The traditional saloon continued to thrive along the waterfront and in such areas as the Five Points, but some proprietors added music and dancing to their businesses. German prostitution establishments introduced a variation of the saloon to mid-century New Yorkers. A German couple often ran the business together, the husband working as bartender and the wife as madam, with both overseeing the young women who served as waitresses and dancing partners in the barroom and as prostitutes in the bedrooms behind or above. Mid-century New York also witnessed the development of another form of drinking establishment, the concert saloon. Although a few concert saloons (or concert halls) existed in the 1850s, their great surge in popularity came after the Civil War when


more than three hundred such establishments existed in New York City. Furthermore, the concert saloon rose in popularity at the same time the New York theater was restricting prostitutes in its effort to become more respectable, thus filling a "leisure-entertainment recruiting" void for some women in the prostitution business as well as a general cultural void for New Yorkers who wanted cheap but lively entertainment.[98]

Most concert saloons were located on major thoroughfares, in the basement or second floor of a building. The essential ingredients of the business were a bar, music, and "waiter girls." Some establishments also offered keno or billiards. Most concert halls had a stage for performances, and the music of the establishment was provided by one or more musicians who alone or with other entertainers might also provide the stage show. Waiter girls were a major attraction of the establishment and varied from the elegantly clothed, dignified woman with the "sister-like" demeanor employed at the Broadway and Fifth Avenue concert saloon to the "beastly, foul-mouthed, brutal wretch" who worked on Canal, Chatham, or Water streets.[99] Cheap liquor was furnished at inflated prices, and the waitress got a percentage of the drinks she sold. Her prostitution business was a private negotiation, which she arranged at the concert saloon but practiced in quarters elsewhere, unless private alcoves were made available by the establishment. Police records indicate that as many as seventeen hundred women were employed as waiter girls in the post-Civil War years. Although at first considered improper entertainment for respectable women, by the latter part of the nineteenth century concert halls were attracting a non-prostitute clientele, especially young working women.[100]

Another entertainment institution that was sometimes identified with the concert saloon was the dance hall. Dance halls were popular in New York as early as the 1840s, especially in areas like Water Street and the Five Points. According to one contemporary, dance halls differed from concert saloons in that "they are one grade lower both as regards the inmates and the visitors, and . . . dancing as well as drinking is carried on in them."[101]

Another contemporary described one of the dancing houses of the Five Points as "a large dimly-lighted cavern" having an "intolerable stench of brandy, tobacco, and steaming carcasses." A fiddler, sitting on a barrel by the bar, played for a group of dancers while "around the sides of the room in bunks, or sitting upon wooden benches, the remainder


John Allen's Dance Hall. John Allen's was one of New York's most 
famous "secondary sex institutions," a place of public entertainment 
where prostitutes could recruit customers. (Courtesy American Antiquarian Society)

of the company wait[ed] impatiently their turn upon the floor—meanwhile drinking and telling obscene anecdotes, or singing fragments of ribald songs."[102]

The most reputable of the nineteenth-century dance houses was Harry Hill's, which opened in the mid-1850s and was located on Houston Street near the Mulberry Street police station. Men paid twenty-five cents to enter, but women were allowed in free. All patrons were "required" to act with decorum, a house rule that the owner, a former pugilist, enforced for the thirty years his establishment was in business. Soliciting was an accepted part of dance halls, but at Harry Hill's it had to be done unobtrusively, and any illicit activities had to take place off the premises. Hill's had a large barroom as well as a dance hall, and patrons were treated to floor shows, one reason why some referred to his establishment as a concert hall. Harry Hill's closed in the late 1880s, the era when the concert hall was declining in popularity; his establishment had spanned the heyday of this form of entertainment. By the end of the century, former patrons of the concert saloon, including prostitutes,


turned to the cabaret as the latest form of public entertainment, which prostitutes regarded as the newest secondary sex institution.[103]

One form of prostitution was centered not in buildings but outside them—the practice of streetwalking. The most well known of the soliciting techniques used by prostitutes, streetwalking was a very significant part of nineteenth-century New York's prostitution culture and, more than any other aspect of this culture, tested the limits of tolerance of New York citizens. Streetwalking became a major political issue.

Many women chose streetwalking as their arena of prostitution because of its ready availability. For the casual prostitute wishing for a quick source of money, streetwalking was a way temporarily to enter the profession without the "commitment" associated with a house of prostitution. Some career prostitutes chose this method of solicitation because they wanted to operate as independents—neither sharing their profits with nor having to adhere to rules set by the madam of an establishment. Other women had no alternative but streetwalking because they had descended the professional ladder of brothel prostitution and were considered too old, sick, or slovenly to be accepted again as brothel inmates.[104] Many very young girls, in fact child prostitutes, gradually eased into streetwalking as an extension of their peddling and huckstering activities and looked on their prostitution less as a new job than as another aspect of the street-world's exchange and barter of whatever commodity one had or could find.[105]

When Sanger wrote that "prostitution no longer confines itself to secrecy and darkness, but boldly strides through our most thronged and elegant thoroughfares," he accurately described the transition of street-walking from the out-of-the-way streets of the eighteenth-century dock areas to the city's busiest thoroughfares and walkways—the Battery, the Bowery, and Broadway. Although the Battery had long been a resort of New York's streetwalkers, it gained new prominence in the antebellum period. The Battery was said to be "the favorite park of New Yorkers, and was indeed the handsomest."[106] For prostitutes, it was a convenient and pleasant promenade where one could stroll looking for business. In the 1840s a plan was proposed for enlarging Battery Park through landfills, a plan many commercial groups opposed. Preferring to see the enlarged area used for commercial development, the Journal of Commerce noted that the city could ill afford to have a park where land was worth $150,000 an acre and there was so little to be had at any price.


"If land is wanted for solitary meditation, or for the concealment of villainy, it would be better to select a site where land is cheaper."[107] By mid-century, however, the "villainy" of prostitution, as well as the respectable New York citizenry, had all but abandoned the area for other favorite walking places. The conversion of Castle Garden to an immigrant depot in the late 1850s, along with the use of poor landfill materials, helped bring on the decline of the Battery, causing it to become a virtual slum until it was reclaimed in 1869.[108]

Next to Broadway, the Bowery was said to be "the most thoroughly characteristic" of New York streets. The street originated in Chatham Square, "the great promenade of the old time denizens of the Bowery." Once a respectable thoroughfare, "the Bowery commenced to lose caste" after the city began to extend up the island. A nineteenth-century citizen noted: "Decent people forsook it, and the poorer and more disreputable classes took possession. Finally, it became notorious, . . . known all over the country for its roughs . . . and its doubtful women."[109] The street was filled with pawnshops, dance houses, lodging houses, concert saloons, and lower-class theaters. Although always a busy thoroughfare, at night and on Sundays the Bowery came especially alive with noise and throngs of people, including the Bowery streetwalkers whom George T. Strong described as "members of the whore-archy in [their] most slatternly deshabille ."[110]

By far, the most famous New York thoroughfare was Broadway—New York's pride and her shame, celebrated as "the most wonderful street in the universe."[111] Filled with elegant shops, "monster" hotels, and the latest in transportation vehicles, a look at Broadway was a "must" for all visitors to New York. Few contemporary sources discussed the city without mentioning the beautiful, elegantly dressed women who promenaded the famous thoroughfare in the afternoons—and few discussed Broadway without mentioning the "flashily dressed" females found there at night, "walking rapidly, with a peculiar gait, and glancing quickly but searchingly at every man they pass."[112] As the heart of the city moved from the tip of Manhattan in the 1830s to the middle of the island in the postwar years, streetwalking shifted in location and intensity along Broadway just as did the centers of brothel prostitution. First concentrating in the area from Fulton to Prince Street, then from Canal to Bleecker, by the 1870s the prime areas for streetwalkers were from Grand to Fourteenth Street, and from Twenty-third to Thirtieth Street.[113]


Working the streets exposed prostitutes to a number of dangers— mugging, rape, and other abuses, as well as disease and physical decline. Whatever the reality of the streets' deleterious effects on these women, one nineteenth-century observer expressed a common belief when he noted: "A healthy Street Walker is almost a myth."[114] Another risk faced by the streetwalking trade was harassment and possible arrest by police, since streetwalking was the least tolerated of the various forms of soliciting. Streetwalking prostitutes were subject to arrest if they stopped to talk to male pedestrians, and police enforced this rule much more aggressively on a major street like Broadway than on the less traversed side streets.[115] Sometimes a difficulty with the law occurred because of the streetwalker's unfortunate choice of patron; several streetwalkers were arrested for propositioning justices. Justice Hopson said he was on his way to court when Anne Miller stopped him at the corner of Water Street and, as she stated, "made the mistake of soliciting directions." He had her arrested, questioned what she did for a living, and sent her to the penitentiary for six months.[116] Catherine Cochran detained Justice Lowndes on Pearl Street one December evening and "made certain delicate but immoral overtures." Lowndes had Cochran brought in to the station house but released her after she promised to behave herself. Six days later she was arrested again by the watch for annoying a man in the street, and this time Lowndes sent her to Bellevue as a vagrant.[117] A few months later, Justice Bloodgood said he was taking a "sentimental stroll" through the Five Points when a woman stopped him and asked "if it wasn't time to go to bed." He had the watch lock her in jail until the next morning, when she went before Justice Lowndes and complained that she had "accidentally run against a stout gentleman" who was "so ungallant that he wouldn't listen to her apology but roughly and gruffly sent her in." Lowndes reprimanded her severely and let her go.[118] Since "evidence" was seldom necessary to arrest a suspected prostitute, it is unlikely the justices were in questionable neighborhoods for entrapment purposes. These occurrences were probably unfortunate accidents for the prostitutes as well as examples of how prostitutes approached pedestrians, but it is also possible that the justices were out strolling for voyeuristic reasons, observing and experiencing up close the underworld of illicit sex.[119]

By the 1850s pressure from citizens and politicians caused officials to take, on occasion, a more aggressive approach to the problem of


streetwalking. The practice had become too obvious and too intrusive, characteristics that challenged the community's usual attitude of quiet toleration of the profession. Articles in the press decried

the shame of our city, . . . the open and indecent parade permitted of miserable women of the lowest sort in Broadway at all hours from nightfall until far past midnight. . .. Has not this abomination been borne about as long as society can safely bear it? Is not this . . . a favorable time to attempt to purge Broadway of this, its greatest disgrace?[120]

The perceived boldness of streetwalkers was partly a function of the sheer numbers of prostitutes who were found on the major thoroughfares, but as distressing as their numbers was the nature of the women walking the streets. The streetwalkers of the 1850s were women who overwhelmingly represented the disinherited and undesirable of New York. The majority of them were drawn from the immigrant and poor classes, those who were hardest hit by the economic stresses of the decade. Also, the practice increasingly included children, or young girls who were described by George Strong as "hideous troop[s] of ragged girls, from twelve years old down, brutalized already almost beyond redemption by premature vice, . . . with whore [written] on their depraved faces."[121] With the increasing presence of children added to the immigrants and the poor in the ranks of prostitution, the rhetoric of reform shifted away from the immorality of illicit sex to what really bothered respectable citizens most: the specter of social disorder, a threat they believed was created more by unacceptable appearances than by sexual immorality itself. Discussing Mayor Wood's reform program, Strong wrote:

What the Mayor seeks to abolish or abate is not the terrible evil of prostitution (for the great notorious "ladies' boarding houses" of Leonard and Mercer Streets are left in peace), but simply the scandal and offence of the peripatetic whore-archy. [122]

Nevertheless, Strong agreed with the Mayor's reform intent—for prostitution's "conspicuousness and publicity are disgraceful and mischievous and inexpressibly bad."[123] William Sanger, writing a few years later, confirmed that the general attitude among contemporaries supported Wood: "Being a prostitute is acknowledged by all as a degradation; while a vagrancy commitment . . . is a positive disgrace."[124] As with


prostitution establishments, where the distinctions noted by contemporaries between the elegant and the poor establishments seemingly reflected New Yorkers' fear of and fascination with new or strange aspects of urban living as much as they did actual differences in the types of houses, the streetwalker or vagrant also became a moral locus or symbol of urban chaos and social disorder. Not only was the streetwalker often poor and foreign, but she also walked through the streets unchaperoned, an act which further challenged patriarchal notions of proper social order.

The presence at mid-century of so many child prostitutes represented a different kind of threat to society, one that involved a failure of the family, the institutional backbone of American society. In response to this threat, interest groups coalesced to become advocates and protectors of this segment of the population. While Chief of Police Matsell and Mayor Wood attacked prostitution in the streets, organizations like the Children's Aid Society and the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor attacked its perceived source, the poor man's home. Yet all of the moralistic rhetoric and public statements condemning streetwalkers and the improper homes of child prostitutes obscured the fact that streetwalking was a quick source of income, often the best option a female had for supporting, or helping to support, herself and her family.

The end result of the 1850s legal and reform campaigns against streetwalkers was the issuance of municipal directives providing a more cautious method of arresting and pressing charges against adult prostitutes. Even so, most of the women found their fate still dependent on the whim of the officer on duty. Most of those arrested continued to be sent for a short while to prison, the revolving door of prostitution. For child prostitutes, a different approach was tried. In the past, young girl prostitutes had been sent to the House of Refuge where, through the strict regimen and rigid discipline of the Refuge or indentured positions, the girls, it was hoped, were taught respectable habits—a remedial approach that met with modest success. In contrast, the Children's Aid Society trained working-class girls in the domestic arts, because such skills were believed to offer these girls an alternative to prostitution and to create, in the long run, a new kind of working-class woman. By the 1860s, the large anti-streetwalking campaigns of the 1850s were a thing of the past, but streetwalkers, both adults and children, continued to


throng the city's thoroughfares, seeking a readily available source of income.[125]

Although streetwalking was the most common form of soliciting by prostitutes, some found other creative ways to attract clients. In the early decades of the nineteenth century when New York was a "walking city," streetwalking on the city's thoroughfares was an adequate way to be exposed to potential clients. With the rise of each new form of public transportation, however, prostitutes extended their solicitation efforts. They not only congregated at depots of ferries, ships, and omnibuses to seek out disembarking passengers, but they also rode the routes to allow greater time for establishing "rapport." Some observers complained that prostitutes had overrun the night lines of steamers traveling from New York to cities like Albany and Boston and consequently had become a great nuisance to respectable travelers.[126]

New York's prostitutes also utilized literary forms of solicitation. Some corresponded with prospective and established clients, using both mail and messenger services. Helen Jewett wrote to men who had visited her previously, requesting that they return, and she wrote to new acquaintances encouraging them to call sometime.[127] Soliciting through correspondence gave Jewett greater control over her time and her calendar. She scheduled visits for particular nights and hours, thus avoiding the surprise of spontaneous visits and the embarrassment and difficulty of having two or more well-liked clients show up at the same time.[128]

In addition to private correspondence, the personal columns of the daily newspapers became popular in the postwar period for arranging both introductions and assignations between illicit lovers. Even more offensive to some newspaper readers than these printed messages between lovers was prostitutes' use of the personals column to announce to the public their moves from one brothel to another. For example:

Miss Gertie Davis, formerly of Lexington Avenue, will be pleased to see her friends at 106 Clinton Place.[129]

Another form of literary solicitation popular in this period was the brothel directory, several of which were published from the 1830s through the 1870s, each giving locations of the most reputable brothels as well as descriptions of the establishments, their madams, and the house prostitutes.[130] Though the establishments and neighborhoods


Gentlemen's Directory. This 1870 brothel guidebook assisted patrons 
in locating and evaluating the city's "temples of love." (Courtesy of the New-
York Historical Society, New York City)

described in brothel directories were usually the more appealing and elegant places of prostitution, such as the places George T. Strong called "the great, notorious 'ladies' boarding houses' of Leonard and Mercer Streets," newspapers and reform tracts repeatedly reminded New Yorkers there were also "dens of filth and debauchery" located at the Hook, in Water Street, or at the Five Points. Both sorts of descriptions were of real places, establishments that actually existed within more broadly defined geographic divisions of prostitution. Yet one sees within the descriptions of what actually was, visions of what must be—the moral prototypes of what New Yorkers feared was threatening the social fiber of the city. Both the tempting licentious palaces of sumptuous luxury and the retributive pestilent dens of debauchery were generalizations within a moralistic framework that helped residents deal with what seemed worrisome in their changing society.

In spite of New Yorkers' attempts at a geographic and institutional ordering of prostitution and related evils, the women to whom George


T. Strong referred as the "peripatetic whore-archy" or the "noctivagous strumpetocracy" were not readily "ordered."[131] As Sanger noted, they were boldly striding through the most "thronged and elegant thoroughfares, and there, in the broad light of the sun, . . . jost[ling] the pure, the virtuous, and the good."[132] Some citizens may have been alarmed by the public specter of prostitution, but there was another aspect of prostitutes' existence in the city that reflected a different relationship with New Yorkers. Censuses and tax records demonstrated that prostitutes also were quietly living in the next block, down the street, or in an adjacent room—fellow New York citizens and neighbors who were coping with daily living in the nation's largest urban metropolis.


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