Preferred Citation: Hill, Marilynn Wood. Their Sisters' Keepers: Prostitution in New York City, 1830-1870. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1993.

1 "The Terrible State of Society and Morals . . . in Unhappy New York" Nineteenth-Century Moralism and the Prostitution Problem

"The Terrible State of Society and Morals . . . in Unhappy New York"
Nineteenth-Century Moralism and the Prostitution Problem

On Monday, April 11, 1836, the New York Herald ran two lead articles side by side at the top of its front page. One story described the brutal murder of a young prostitute whose body had been found the day before; the second reported on efforts by local church leaders to dispose of a controversy involving a leading moral reformer who campaigned against prostitution. The murdered prostitute, virtually unknown except to her patrons, coworkers, and a few who recognized her in her neighborhood, would within days became a household name and would achieve considerable posthumous notoriety. The moral reformer, whose name was already widely familiar in New York and other states, would within a few months die in relative obscurity, broken in health and spirit.[1]

There is no evidence that the prostitute and the reformer had known one another or even been aware of one another, though both had been intimately involved with New York's prostitution community. The double lead billing for their stories evoked two sides of the same coin, two completely different images of the world of prostitution. Ironically, perhaps, from their vastly different perspectives and experiences, both individuals can be said to have played a role—symbolic, if not actual— in shaping issues and public discourse that would impact on the social fabric of mid-nineteenth-century New York City.

Under the title "A Most Atrocious Murder," the Herald described the brutal death of prostitute Helen Jewett in a brothel at 41 Thomas Street.



The Murder of Helen Jewett. On the night of April 9, 1836, Helen Jewett 
was murdered by an ax blow to her head. The murderer then set fire to her body 
and bed before escaping. A customer-lover who was with her that night was charged 
with the murder but was acquitted. (Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, 
New York City)

Jewett had been found murdered in her bed, the victim of an ax blow to her head. Her room had been set on fire, apparently in an attempt to destroy evidence. An estranged lover, Richard P. Robinson, with whom she had last been seen the previous evening, was accused of the crime. Based on physical evidence and the testimony of other residents of the house, a coroner's jury bound Robinson over for trial, and he was sent to jail.[2]

News of the murder created an immediate sensation. For the two months between the April crime and the end of the week-long trial in June, New York newspapers devoted lengthy columns and even entire pages to daily coverage of the case. Reports were carried in newspapers as far away as Mississippi and Maine, and the murder-trial proceedings were the most widely covered of any in America to that time. The public seemed to have an insatiable curiosity about the event, the young victim, her prostitute associates, and their clients. For the week the trial was in session, spectators lined up outside the courtroom hoping to get seats or at least a glimpse of the characters involved. Although evidence pointed


to Robinson's guilt, he was acquitted by a jury suspicious of the testimony of prostitutes, and the crime was left unsolved. For decades afterward, newspapers continued to make references to Jewett's murder, and the story became part of nineteenth-century New York legend and fiction. Jewett even appears briefly in Gore Vidal's 1973 historical novel, Burr .[3]

Publicity surrounding the incident fed an obvious public appetite for the lurid details of the murder, but it also revealed a deep uneasiness about the environment of the crime. The Herald termed Jewett's death the natural result of a "terrible state of society . . . and morals which ought to be reformed altogether in unhappy New York."[4] After 1830, the increasing presence of prostitutes on the city streets had caused New Yorkers to begin speaking much more publicly about a "prostitution problem," voicing their concerns in the press, the pulpit, and municipal forums. In language and rhetoric that was often more moralistic than realistic, prostitutes were depicted as either "innocent victims" or "corrupt denizens," and their brothels were "places of perdition" or "vile receptacles." This mode of discussion obscured deeper issues, deflecting attention from dramatic social changes then under way in economic and family lives as well as in attitudes and mores.[5] From the moralistic perspective, the Jewett murder was viewed as the inevitable result of an obvious decline in both private and public morality--the product of innocent lives gone astray, the fruition of urban social decay. But even many contemporary accounts of the case had to admit that Helen Jewett did not readily fit the moralistic prototype, and her divergence from contemporary notions of a prostitute's sorrowful existence no doubt contributed to the nineteenth-century public's fascination with her story. Contrary to moralistic expectations, Jewett appeared to have led an attractive and independent life, a life she had chosen for herself over more conventional options.

Many versions of Jewett's life exist. In the telling and retelling of her story at the time of the murder and later, authors have sometimes described her as the innocent victim of a licentious seducer, unable to avoid a certain doom, and sometimes presented her as a girl who may have been tricked into losing her virginity but who made the most of her subsequent life--a life that was glamorous and adventurous, though filled with risks.[6] Because Jewett has been the object of so much no-


toriety, it becomes difficult to separate the reality from the myth, but some information about her short life is available--a life that serves as an introduction to issues and events that this study will explore in telling the story of the diverse group of women who became prostitutes in mid-nineteenth-century New York City.

Jewett was born in Hallowell, Maine. Before taking the name Helen (Ellen or Nell) Jewett, she also went by Dorcas Doyen (or Dorrance), Maria G. Benson, Ellen Spaulding, Helen Mar, and Maria Stanley, the first probably being her real name. She was born in 1813, and at the time of her death she was twenty-three. One story of her background, based on what she told an enamored reporter from the Transcript in 1834, is that she was the daughter of a major general and had been seduced while at boarding school. Another version, more generally accepted, is that she was the daughter of Welsh immigrant parents, a mechanic father who drank and a mother who died when Jewett was about ten years old. At age thirteen Jewett went into service in the home of Judge Nathan Weston of Augusta, Maine, where she lived for four years. She was sent to school during that period and was said to have been a very proficient student with a taste for literature. One source stated she spoke several languages and enjoyed quoting lines of verse from French, Italian, and English poets.

At the end of her years of service in the Weston home, seventeen-year-old Jewett apparently had a liaison with a young man, an episode that preceded her move into a life of prostitution. She may have worked first as a prostitute in Portland, Maine, then moved to a Mrs. Bryant's in Boston, and then to New York, where she stayed for a short while at Mrs. Post's on Howard Street and then at the Laurence house on Chapel Street. Like other prostitutes of the time, Jewett was mobile, changing her place of employment periodically. In 1833 she went to Rosina Townsend's at 41 Thomas Street for about ten months, and in 1834 she moved to Mary Berry's at 128 Duane Street, where she lived until early 1836. Following a disagreement with Mrs. Berry she moved to Mrs. Cunningham's at 3 Franklin Street for a brief period, and finally, three weeks before her death, she moved back to Rosina Townsend's.[7]

Although Jewett was an ordinary prostitute, she lived and worked in well-situated houses, near the top of the prostitution hierarchy, and thus she cannot be considered representative of the majority of prostitutes, who were poor and practiced the trade on a casual basis. Because the


documents concerning Jewett reveal no evidence of her plans for the future, it is unclear whether she aspired to make prostitution a lifelong profession or regarded it as a temporary option through which she might achieve upward mobility or possibly marriage.

Jewett was said to be "one of the most intelligent, beautiful and accomplished women to be found in her class of life," and "aside from her disreputable calling, was deemed a high minded and honorable woman."[8] The Herald described her as a "fascinating woman in conversation, full of intellect and refinement . . . with talents calculated for the highest sphere in life, had she had a happier destiny and steady moral principles." She was said to dress "splendidly," owning a variety of "elegant dresses." She also was rumored to be a good seamstress who enjoyed sewing for her friends and clients as well as herself.[9]

Jewett appeared to be popular with both colleagues and clients. She was described as a "star" of the Berry house, where she lived the longest, and she probably earned as much as $50 to $100 a week for the establishment, or between $1,000 and $2,000 in current dollars. Her earnings also provided her with sufficient personal economic resources to travel, attend the theater, dress elegantly, make generous gifts to her friends, and even lend money on occasion. When she fell in love with one of her clients, however, Jewett's value to her brothel declined, and the madam of her house warned her that fidelity to her lover would ruin her career--not to mention the madam's profits. [ 10]

Like most prostitutes, Jewett had contact with the local police. On one occasion, she was brought into police headquarters because the brothel was raided, but most of her dealings with the law came about because Jewett brought charges against other parties. She sued a client named Burke for cutting several of her dresses to pieces following an argument, and the court required that he reimburse her $100. She brought charges of assault against an overzealous suitor named Laraty, who had accosted her in the lobby of a public theater by throwing his arms around her and kissing her. She claimed that he also kicked her. With Mrs. Berry, her brothel madam at the time, she sued a client named Boyd who in turn countersued Jewett and Berry. Several newspapers reported that Jewett also brought charges against a young woman but "settled" the suit, and on one occasion she was brought before a grand jury to give testimony. Clearly, Jewett did not fear that notoriety as a prostitute would cause her problems with law officials, and in fact



Helen Jewett at the Theatre. On one of her many visits to the theater, 
Jewett was accosted by an overzealous customer in an incident that led her to file 
assault charges against the man. Like many mid-nineteenth-century prostitutes, 
Jewett was not shy about asserting her rights as a citizen before the courts. 
(Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)


her frequent recourse to the legal system suggests that she was quite comfortable as a "public citizen" seeking justice from the court. [11]

One of Jewett's most interesting pastimes, and an activity that distinguishes her from the majority of prostitutes, was carrying on a vast correspondence with clients, friends, patrons, lovers, and former colleagues. One newspaper commented that she was seen frequently at the post office, where her postal bill was as great as that of some business firms in the city. After her death the police confiscated from her bedroom a trunk containing approximately ninety letters, some of which were introduced into evidence in the trial.[12] Revealed in the correspondence that became public are aspects of her personal life that are far more detailed than the information available about most other prostitutes: her joys and excitement, her gregariousness, generosity, loyalty, understanding, and affection, as well as glimpses of her jealousy, anger, insecurity, anxiety, sadness, and disappointments.

Jewett's correspondence was obviously important to her, both on a practical level, as a skill useful in recruiting and scheduling customers, and on an emotional level, as a means of fulfilling deeply felt needs for social ties. Communication with people from different cities or different stations in life brought new experiences to Jewett, allowing her to escape mentally the restrictions and debasements of the world of prostitution. Correspondence with men she admired and liked allowed her to enjoy their companionship without the sexual and physical considerations that would be invoked during a personal visit in the brothel. One customer, Edward, who wished for a closer relationship with Jewett, noted this distancing technique at the end of one of his letters: "You have often said write me, but never said call and see me."[13]

Jewett also received from her correspondence a degree of emotional sustenance and reinforcement from both male and female friends whose responses reconfirmed their affection for and personal interest in her, and from acquaintances who complimented and admired her literary skills and considered them an indication of refinement unusual for "one of her station in life." Thus, Jewett's correspondence set her apart from other prostitutes and provided her with a sense of self-esteem and importance, but her writing ability and education were a double-edged sword. While her talent enabled her to communicate with interesting people on a level different from the sexual, it also made her aware of the limitations of the life she led: "I have often wished I had


never been educated, but like those I every day meet, I could not read my name in print."[14]

By leaving Jewett's murder unsolved, authorities only added to the mystique surrounding the crime, its central figure, and the world of prostitution. The story also seemed to confirm the popular belief that a life of prostitution often led to an untimely death, though Jewett's death in fact was linked not so much to hapless fate as to the passion she aroused in clients and the independent spirit in which she conducted her brief life. The murder deprives us of the knowledge of how her full life might have been lived, of the public and private circumstances she would have faced and choices she would have made. We will return to her story for insights into the world of prostitution, but for a story of those missing years and missing experiences we must turn to the stories of many other New Yorkers--both the women who practiced prostitution and the other community members who interacted with them.

The New York City of the 1830s, the city deemed "unhappy" by the Herald editor, was already the leading city of the new nation, which by 1810 had surpassed other American cities in population and commerce, and, many believed, in problems as well. All of the social changes that were transforming an idealized agrarian nation, changes that were perceived by observers as disturbing the foundations of American society, were magnified in the country's most expansive urban setting. Unprecedented urban growth and industrialization had led to overcrowding, unemployment, and poverty on a scale previously unimagined. After the War of 1812, the increasing influx of European immigrants brought to American cities strange customs and sometimes different languages as well as new political influences that challenged the hegemony of the propertied classes. Urban housing for the poor was both scarce and wretched, and city dwellers became accustomed to large numbers of vagrants wandering the streets. Sanitation was primitive, and mortality high. [15]

These changes in American life were also transforming basic social institutions such as the family. The nineteenth-century industrial-commercial economy that replaced the traditional domestic economy of small farms and household industries forced breadwinners into new occupations and redefined women's roles. Marriage was no longer a self-contained economic partnership, as men, and often women and children, went to work outside the home. The change in family structure


and functions was accompanied by a change in attitudes: woman's role as homemaker, mother, and transmitter of moral and cultural values was idealized in what has been called the "cult of true womanhood" or the "cult of domesticity," which both elevated women to a new level of veneration in the public's consciousness and relegated them to a sphere separate from the dominant and more significant world in which men operated. The nineteenth-century woman's sphere, defined by the activities and functions that men thought appropriate to women, involved a narrowed role and one which was obviously subordinate in power to the male sphere.

Many nineteenth-century women, however, were able to move beyond such a narrowly defined or idealized role. Some worked actively in voluntary and religious associations, groups that were vital to the social-reform movements of the early nineteenth century as well as to the development of the nineteenth-century women's rights movement. Such activities involved mostly women from the middle and upper classes, but the idealized view of woman in the home was even further from reality in the daily lives of working-class women, who by necessity went out to work to supplement their husbands' inadequate earnings or to provide in full for themselves or their families. With women's occupational options limited and wages low, employment often entailed a choice between unpleasant alternatives, including prostitution. [16]

Among the many social ills that marked life in a rapidly changing America after 1830--poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, disease--prostitution often became the symbol of what was perceived as the social and moral disintegration of society. As a challenge to the idyllic view of woman as asexual, maternal, and pure, and as a threat to the stability of one of the most revered social institutions, the family, prostitution was dubbed the major nineteenth-century social problem, often called, for the rest of the century, "the social evil."[17]

The leading figure in bringing the issue of prostitution to the center of public debate in New York was John R. McDowall, the reformer featured alongside Jewett in the April 11, 1836, edition of the Herald . McDowall was the fulcrum around which New York's earliest major prostitution controversy swirled. He had arrived in New York in the summer of 1830, as a student intern working as a volunteer missionary for the American Tract Society. The son of a minister, McDowall was born in 1801 in Canada. He attended Amherst, Union (or Sche-


nectady) College, and then Princeton for his theological studies. While at Princeton in 1828-1829, McDowall was active in a number of evangelical and missionary societies, and in 1830 he and his brother, also a divinity student, volunteered for missionary work among the lost souls in the poor districts of New York City. The brothers spent their summer in the Five Points area, visiting crowded tenements, lecturing inhabitants, and distributing tracts and Bibles. They also began visiting the many brothels of the neighborhood, leading prayers with inhabitants and customers and exhorting them to abandon their lives of sin. At the end of his internship, McDowall, feeling he could not leave the work he had begun, remained in New York to continue as a missionary on his own. He set up Sunday schools and Bible classes in the city's almshouses and prisons and visited hospitals, where he continued to meet prostitutes who seemed to be trapped in lives of dissipation, disease, and crime. McDowall's work among the unfortunate attracted the attention and support of a number of respectable New York women, and with the generous assistance of the evangelicals Arthur and Lewis Tappan, McDowall's female supporters were able to establish the New York Magdalen Society. The Society opened a House of Refuge where penitent harlots could be taught respectable ways and skills to support themselves in the community.[18] The Society women hired McDowall as their chaplain, missionary, and agent, and at the end of the first year in operation they published a report he wrote. This report, which claimed there were "not less than 10,000" prostitutes in the city, caused a great furor and focused attention not only on prostitution but also on the report's author. McDowall found himself in the middle of a controversy between reformers aroused by a problem of seemingly near-plague proportions and respectable New Yorkers outraged by statistics they considered preposterous about a subject they viewed as obscene--and by the report's implied criticism of New York and its many members of prominent families who were said to be regular clients at the brothels. Former Mayor Philip Hone wrote in his diary in the summer of 1831 that the report was a "disgraceful document." Several public meetings at Tammany Hall were held to protest the Magdalen Society and its report, and a grand jury was called to investigate the extent of prostitution. McDowall and the Magdalen Society were verbally assailed, and some members of the society, such as Arthur Tappan, received letters threatening mob destruction of their



Reforemer Preaching to Prostitutes. Moral reformers 
like the Reverend John R. McDowall frequently visited brothels 
and other prostitution establishments, distributing tracts and Bibles 
and praying with the inhabitants, in hopes of reforming the wayward
 sisters. (Courtesy American Antiquarian Society)

homes. After several months of harassment, the society succumbed, its members disbanded, and the refuge was closed.[19] McDowall considered the response of reform leaders like Tappan a "cowardly betrayal," and he publicly accused them of having "dumped" the poor prostitutes into the streets. Refusing to retreat under pressure, McDowall published a second report, Magdalen Facts , which defended his actions,


reaffirmed and enlarged upon statements and information in the original report, and attacked his critics. He also continued preaching on his own, even though he was officially reprimanded by the Presbytery, or church hierarchy.[20]

In January 1833, McDowall began issuing a monthly, McDowall's Journal , which encouraged the formation of reform societies and campaigned against illicit sex and licentious literature, art, and songs. He also alarmed some citizens by threatening to expose publicly the names of men who frequented brothels and seduced innocent girls. Either because the threat intimidated the opposition or because the list never materialized, McDowall managed to avoid another public outburst for a few months.[21]

Throughout the controversy McDowall had continued to receive the unofficial support of a group of women who in February 1833 formed the Female Benevolent Society, which hired McDowall as its agent and the manager of its house of refuge. After six months he retired from the society to devote his full time to publishing McDowall's Journal .[22] Shortly thereafter, McDowall's zealous approach to sin again put him at odds with respectable citizens of New York. A grand jury was convened to review McDowall's Journal , and it declared the journal a "public nuisance, calculated to increase the very evil it professes to prevent, [by] inciting the young to the gratification of criminal passions."[23] In spite of this finding, a number of New York women continued to believe that the publication could become an effective instrument in furthering their moral-reform work. This group of women, from several different reform societies, joined together to form the New York Female Moral Reform Society and took over McDowall's Journal , renaming it the Advocate of Moral Reform . McDowall was hired as the society's official missionary, and he reactivated his spirited crusade against prostitution by visiting brothels, almshouses, and hospitals. He and his followers especially enjoyed descending upon brothels in the early hours of the morning while the residents and their clients were still in bed, startling them with loud hymns and Bible recitations in the hope that by disrupting the activities of the houses they would eventually break up the brothels.[24]

Unhappy with McDowall's notoriety, financial management, and unconventional approach to ministering to the unfortunate, the Presbytery called him to trial and suspended him from the ministry. McDowall spent a year defending his actions in print and in person, until


in 1836, following the Jewett murder, the synod reversed its sentence and reinstated him. But McDowall was a broken man. Exhausted and depressed from his conflict with the church and the pain of a lifelong knee ailment, he became sick with tuberculosis and died in poverty later that year, at the young age of thirty-five.[25]

Despite his early death, McDowall had significant impact. He had succeeded in focusing widespread public attention on an occupation the public had previously ignored or quietly accepted, and he had helped raise concern about the issue to the point that anti-prostitution and moral reform became a major thrust in the evangelical movement that swept New York and the Northeast for over a decade.

Moral reformers were not alone in rediscovering prostitution during the 1830s. The issue was broached by writers from several different perspectives. Whereas moral or religious exposés, much like McDowall's, related prostitution to sin, most often with substantial sympathy for the women who were its "victims," articles in the popular press took up the subject frequently, in voyeuristic detail, describing the institution as part of the social or criminal underground, society's dark netherworld. Short essays and book-length sketches guided readers on fictional tours through the streets of poverty and dens of vice of the urban underworld. They described the prostitutes' clothing, brothels, and haunts, and catalogued a social hierarchy said to exist among the "fallen."

Still another group of social critics, in both Europe and the United States, represented a new breed of researcher-writers who broached public problems in the manner of scientific investigators, though their writings were never totally devoid of moralistic overtones. These researchers noted the detrimental effects of prostitution on public health and the public economy, treating prostitution largely as an aspect of the filthy dehumanized world of the urban poor. Their studies included personal interviews with large numbers of prostitutes, supplemented by records from police, detention facilities, and hospitals. Statistics were compiled on the prostitutes' backgrounds, their reasons for entering prostitution, and their lives in the profession. Because prostitutes were associated with the rapid spread of the dreaded disease syphilis, most of these researchers argued that the best way to control venereal disease would be to regulate prostitution.[26]

Though all of the literary sources on prostitution provide information about the lives of nineteenth-century prostitutes and the society in which



1839 "Moral Reform Directory" This title page from one of the earliest of 
the nineteenth-century brothel directories satirizes moral reformers' efforts to combat
 the "prostitution problem." Along with brief but dubious statistics on the numbers 
of prostitutes, as well as warnings of the dangers facing customers, the directory 
conveniently gives the names, addresses, and descriptions of more than one 
hundred prostitutes and brothels. (Courtesy New York Bound Bookshop)

they lived, the scientific studies offer especially fruitful data for investigating both the nature and extent of the practice in specific locations. One of the earliest such studies was that of A. J. B. Parent-Duchatelet, who published De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris in 1836 and whose research methodology became the model for later writers in Europe and the United States. Parent studied the police and hospital records of 12,000 French women who were "inscribed," or officially registered, as prostitutes over a twenty-year period. He also interviewed and further observed a smaller group of these women to develop a detailed profile of the typical French prostitute, including her reasons for entering the profession.[27]


Other European investigators, such as William Tait in Edinburgh and William Acton in London, attempted similar studies of prostitution in their respective cities. In the United States, physician Charles Smith wrote in 1847 on the causes and effects of prostitution in New York City, covering many of the same topics as Parent, but drawing conclusions only from impressionistic data he garnered in his medical practice among prostitutes rather than from hard data collected in surveys and interviews. A large part of Smith's study is a biography of the famous New York City abortionist, Madam Restelle, because he believed that abortion--"Restellism"--"may either cause or prevent prostitution."[28] Such ambiguous analysis, which reflected the moralistic thinking of many of his contemporaries, held that abortions saved the reputations of promiscuous women so they could avoid prostitution but also aided women in developing an appetite for lascivious living that led to prostitution. Smith argued that the overwhelming majority of New York's prostitutes were poor, ignorant, and untalented, and he described life in the profession as degraded. Because he believed prostitution was a proved necessity but a drain on the public economy, he called for a system of regulation.[29]

The most extensive study of nineteenth-century American prostitution was published in 1858 by Dr. William Sanger, chief resident physician of Blackwell's Island Hospital in New York City. In 1855 the Board of Governors of the Almshouse had appointed Sanger to examine the extent of venereal disease among the poor in New York City, but Sanger had enlarged his assignment into a history of prostitution and the resulting social pollution in New York. He directed the local police in administering a questionnaire to two thousand prostitutes throughout the city and submitted a questionnaire to the inspector of each police ward, or precinct, asking about the extent of prostitution in his district. Each inspector was asked for information on the number of brothels, assignation houses, dancing saloons, and liquor stores where prostitutes congregated, and the number of individual prostitutes in the district. Sanger also drew on data from hospital records; as chief resident physician at the city's contagious-disease hospital, he was familiar with many poor patients, especially prostitutes, who suffered from syphilis and other venereal diseases. At the conclusion of his study, Sanger, like Smith and their European counterparts, made a strong plea for state


regulation of prostitution as a means of controlling the further spread of venereal disease. [ 30]

There are limitations to Sanger's study. The prostitutes interviewed, selected by the local police, were probably the most well known in each ward, and may not have represented a cross-section of New York City prostitutes. [31] Streetwalkers were given little attention, and child prostitution was virtually ignored. The 2,000 women surveyed included only two fifteen-year-old girls, and none who were younger, even though police and newspapers repeatedly noted that many female children were engaged in prostitution. Sanger's refusal to recognize the extent of childhood prostitution was evident when he scoffed at a report concerning the previous prostitution of some House of Refuge inmates: "We can not see very clearly what connection exists between the New York House of Refuge and prostitution considering the ages of children generally admitted to that institution; . . . we are rather dubious as to the acts of impurity alluded to, except in a very few exceptional cases."[32] Although Sanger's agents may have selected a broad community sample of adult prostitutes--prostitution seems to have been practiced quite openly at this time and local policemen would have known not only brothel residents but also many women who practiced independently in their neighborhoods--some of his data is probably inaccurate. Because Sanger used public officials to administer his survey, it is likely that some women gave false answers to certain questions or gave responses they thought the surveyors wanted to hear.[33] Furthermore, even though Sanger did his research with apparent earnest integrity, his results were interpreted within a moralistic and middle-class framework, with obvious biases against the mores of immigrants and the poor. Nonetheless, he offers data about nineteenth-century New York City's prostitutes that is both extensive and telling.

Sanger's study also is valuable because of its timeliness. Published in the 1850s, it presents information on the profession at mid-century, about halfway between the 1830s, when McDowall's report first focused widespread public attention on the problem, and the 1870s, when the city's political machine gained control of the trade, thus ending a brief but unique era when prostitution was managed predominantly by females. Sanger offered New Yorkers a methodical accounting of the numbers of prostitutes, and his data on the extent as well as the causes, conditions, and consequences of prostitution helped fuel the public


debate on the merits of officially regulating the practice. Though the "prostitution problem" remained a public issue in New York City for several decades, seemingly involving more and more females of all ages in both its degraded street trade and its predominantly female-managed brothel businesses, efforts to pass laws regulating the practice were unsuccessful. In the 1870s state lawmakers abandoned efforts to control prostitution by legalizing it, and they returned New York City's municipal governance to the city's machine politicians, who thereafter incorporated the prostitution business into a political-economic structure that was firmly in their control.

Though Sanger's study offers a unique and important perspective on prostitution as a part of New York's mid-nineteenth-century urban culture, the life of the New York prostitute, in its private as well as public dimensions, has not yet been fully explored. Primary source material is limited, since prostitutes left few written records. Nonetheless, surprising quantities of personal and economic records exist that allow not only a critical analysis of the data and conclusions given by Sanger and other investigators but also a glimpse of the private lives of prostitutes. Contemporary sources such as brothel guides and newspapers, and tax, census, court, and police records reveal much about prostitution and the women who practiced that trade in the nation's largest city. Reformers' records, such as those from the House of Refuge, are also a fruitful source of information illuminating the backgrounds of young prostitutes and some of the reasons these women entered the profession. Especially in the first two and a half decades of the Refuge's operation (1825-1850), intake officers wrote long and detailed histories of the inmates and seemed very interested in whether or not young girls had ever "slept with a man." Though follow-up records are less complete, case notations were often made for a number of years after a woman had stayed at the Refuge, suggesting the long-term possibilities for women who had practiced prostitution at some point in their lives. [34]

Equally important for understanding the private lives of mid-nineteenth-century New York City prostitutes is Helen Jewett's correspondence: a collection of eighty-eight letters to and from Jewett and her clients, her madam, and her friends in the profession. Written over a period of two years, from early 1834 until a few weeks before her murder, the Jewett letters are a direct reflection of her personal and professional life while in the midst of it, offering information about her associations


with and feelings about other women and her view of the practices and customs that governed relationships with clients in the prostitute community. In conjunction with other data, the letters deepen our understanding of the private lives, personal relationships, and sensibilities of New York City prostitutes in the nineteenth century.[35]

Who were New York's prostitutes, these women who elicited so much public interest? Although the term prostitution has sometimes been used so broadly as to encompass all extramarital sex, and the nineteenth-century data is not always clear about when sexual promiscuity becomes professional prostitution--a judgment that varies in different periods and in different societies according to legal and cultural determinations--in the more strict and common usage of the term a prostitute was a woman who sold sexual favors promiscuously to those who could pay. [36] This group would include women who worked at other trades or in families but who were occasional or part-time prostitutes. It might also include women "kept" for some financial consideration as non-conjugal sexual partners. In this study, a narrow definition of the term will be used, i.e., a woman who earned money by the promiscuous sale of sexual favors outside of marriage.

Extent of Prostitution in New York City, 1830-1870

There are no official censuses or registries of New York City prostitutes in the nineteenth century. Although several population censuses list some women as prostitutes, there are many reasons for concluding these figures are incomplete and incorrect. A woman was not likely to admit her profession to an official government representative, especially when she might practice another profession such as seamstress, milliner, or boardinghouse keeper that was a respectable--and legal--activity. At various times police officials were charged with keeping track of prostitutes and claimed to have records of all houses of prostitution and lists of names of public prostitutes.[37] If these records were kept, however, they no longer are available. There are several semi-annual reports by chiefs of police giving total numbers of prostitutes in the city, but these reports probably enumerate only the more


well known of the occupation and omit occasional prostitutes. One suspects as well that police officials tended to underestimate prostitution in response to periodic public outcries about the extent of the vice, which encouraged the police to present themselves as keeping the problem under control. The only official survey of New York prostitution known to exist is that made by Sanger, which thus becomes the centerpiece for judging other figures.

Until 1830, prostitutes were not so much counted or studied as they were hidden away in the back streets of New York and other seaports and large urban centers. Legal pressure was applied to keep prostitutes and brothels obscure, contained in certain areas, and hence as invisible as possible. In New York the Common Council, courts, and groups like a short-lived Magdalen Society founded in 1812 periodically had to deal with issues involving prostitutes, but public references to prostitution were infrequent until the McDowall controversy of 1830-1831.[38] From that time on, discussion of prostitution would become interwoven into the fabric of everyday life, and estimates of the numbers of women involved would become in part a basis for evaluating the extent of corruption and vice in the city.

McDowall's 1831 report stated that there were at least 10,000 prostitutes in the city, amounting to one-tenth of the females of all ages in the total city population of approximately 203,000. McDowall estimated that about 5,000 of the prostitutes were full-time public prostitutes. He claimed his figures were conservative, but respectable New Yorkers considered them outrageously high and convened a grand jury to produce an independent estimate. The jury reported that even after enumerating every suspicious female in the city as a member of the Sisterhood only 1,438 prostitutes--one in seventy female New Yorkers--could be identified. The Morning Courier and Enquirer editorialized that even the grand jury's much lower estimate was "excessive."[39]

The discrepant estimates put forth by McDowall and the grand jury set the pattern for efforts at measuring the incidence of prostitution throughout the period: moral reformers, religious leaders, and politicians claimed the number of prostitutes was quite high, and scientific investigators and city officials consistently issued much lower figures. McDowall's estimate of 10,000 prostitutes, initially considered so outrageous, was nonetheless invoked frequently throughout the 1830s and into the 1840s, especially by politicians, ministers, reformers, and the



Police Office Notice, 1813. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, 
legal pressure was used to keep prostitutes confined to certain areas of New York City.
 This 1813 police warning to prostitutes and landlords in the area near the Hook illustrates 
this policy but indicates that the police were courteous enough to wait four months until 
May Day, New Yorkers' traditional moving day, before enforcing their threat. (Courtesy 
Museum of the City of New York)


popular press. Counterclaims that the majority of the owners of prostitution houses were pious, worthy, moral, respectable men also persisted. But by the mid-1840s, such discussion caused no outcry; the public had become much more aware of the existence of prostitution through the press, the work of reformers, and the frequent appearance of prostitutes on the public sidewalks, at shops and theaters, and in many neighborhood streets.[40]

Although claims that New York had large numbers of prostitutes no longer surprised many citizens, New Yorkers still debated the figures. In 1847, Dr. Charles Smith wrote in his book on prostitution that the numbers of New York harlots had been "absurdly" inflated. Remarking that the truth was bad enough without any exaggeration, he presented as "accurate returns" the statistics in the official report of the Chief of Police for November 1846 through April 1847. This report lists the number of public prostitutes as 2,483, or one of every seventy-seven females in the city.[41]

In 1858, Sanger, too, expressed doubt about McDowall's estimate, pointing out that in the nearly twenty years since McDowall's report, "vice has not decreased in New York, but has steadily increased, and yet the most diligent search can discover . . . only 7,860 public and private prostitutes," even broadly defined.[42] Sanger based his estimate on a figure of 5,000 given by Chief of Police George W. Matsell in 1856, which he adjusted to reflect precinct-level police estimates, general population growth, the "floating prostitute population," and those prostitutes who were "effectively disguised." Sanger's conclusion was that New York had one prostitute for every forty-seven females in the population.[43]

Three police reports in the 1860s put forth much lower estimates, reporting as few as 2,100 prostitutes and no more than 2,700, working at approximately 600 brothels. The highest of these figures, the count of 2,700 in 1866, identifies one of every 136 females, or less than one percent of the female population, as prostitutes.[44] Eight years earlier, Sanger had actually interviewed almost that many known prostitutes, when New York City's population was 100,000 less, suggesting that the police calculations must have been on the low side. Just how low they were is illustrated by arrest reports between 1866 and 1870, when prostitution arrests numbered around 6,000 annually; the official police estimate of 2,700 prostitutes in the city could be accurate only if each prostitute had been arrested an average of twice each year, which was certainly not the


Table 1
Estimates of New York City Prostitutes , 1831-1872


Female Population


No. Prostitutes

Total No .

% Prostitutes

McDowall, 1831




Grand Jury, 1831




Aldermen's Report, 1844


190, 751


Police Report, 1847


190, 751


Chief Matsell, 1856




Sanger, 1858




Police Report, 1864




Police Report, 1866




Bishop Simpson, 1866




Police Report, 1867




Reverend Bellows, 1871




Police Report, 1872




SOURCES : Contemporary reports on the scope of prostitution are discussed in Chapter 1 and its notes. For New York City population figures, see U.S. and New York State censuses, 1830-1870.

case.[45] In 1872 police estimates were even less reliable; the 1,223 prostitutes said to be in New York that year amount to only three-fifths of the number of prostitutes interviewed by Sanger fifteen years earlier, despite population growth of almost 50 percent during that period.[46]

The police statistics did not go unchallenged. In keeping with the spirit of McDowall, two Protestant ministers declared to their congregations that prostitution's numbers were much greater than reports stated. In 1866, Methodist Bishop Matthew Simpson announced that there were 11,000 to 12,000 prostitutes in New York City, a population equal to the number of members of the Methodist Church. Five years later, the Reverend Dr. Henry W. Bellows estimated the number of "fallen" women had increased to 20,000, which amounted to one of every twenty-four females in the city (table 1).[47]

Understandably, police estimates of the prostitution population from 1830 to 1870 were extremely low, while ministers, reformers, and public commentators tended to give exaggerated estimates. As has been noted, Sanger used the most thorough method of determining the number of


Table 2
Wards with Most Prostitutes, Brothels, and Assignation Houses, as Identified by Sanger





No .


No .



























SOURCE : William Sanger, History of Prostitution , 580

prostitutes in New York City at any one time, though the accuracy of his study can still be questioned. One approach to assessing the accuracy and limitations of Sanger's figures is to check some of them against other data suggesting the prevalence of prostitution in the mid-1850s.

Two wards of the city, the eighth and fifth, were home to a number of noted brothels, though Sanger's study did not identify them as the leading wards in prostitute population. Separated by Canal Street, the two wards covered neighborhoods west of lower Broadway that included several streets where prostitution houses were concentrated. New Yorkers repeatedly commented on the fact that prostitutes, as well as brothels and assignation houses, were dispersed throughout all wards of the city, in both the best and worst neighborhoods, but wards five and eight were recognized as having a significant prostitution population (table 2).[48]

Using newspapers, brothel guidebooks, and city records, it is possible to locate approximately 53 percent of the prostitutes said to be in ward eight by the police inspectors' survey and more than 25 percent of those said to be in ward five. A few more brothel keepers in these neighborhoods can be identified by city directories, newspapers, and other sources. Using the 1855 census, the average number of residents of prostitution houses in these wards can be calculated, providing a basis for estimating the number of prostitutes likely to live in additional houses known through other records. By this method, one can estimate a brothel-based prostitute population that accounts for 83 percent of the number Sanger found in ward eight and 52 percent of the number he found in ward five (table 3).[49]


Table 3
Estimated Number of Prostitutes in Wards 5 and 8 in 1855


Ward 5

Ward 8


Identified in Census











Prostitutes per House (avg.)




Additional Known Houses




Additional Prostitutes





(est., based on avg. per house)


Total Prostitutes





(census + add'l. est.)


Sanger Estimate of Total




Total as % of Sanger Estimate




SOURCES : 1855 New York State Census, city directories, other contemporary sources; Sanger, History of Prostitution , 580.

Thus, over a century later, a high percentage of individual prostitutes—a population group not easily located in sources—can still be identified, leading to the assumption that Sanger's figures, particularly for the brothel-based rather than part-time prostitute population, are not significantly above the actual numbers of prostitutes in the mid-1850s. Indeed, given the difficulties of tracing prostitutes, especially the street and part-time practitioners, Sanger's figures more likely may be underestimates. The most conservative estimates of the 1830s and 1840s indicated that prostitutes represented from 1.3 percent to 1.4 percent of the female population, while Sanger estimated that they represented 2.1 percent (see table 1). If we accept the Sanger percentage as roughly accurate and calculate that percentage of the female population from 1830 through 1870 in rapidly growing New York, we obtain the following estimate of the number of prostitutes for those years:












It is likely, however, that the proportion of prostitutes in the female population was not constant but was in fact increasing, especially after 1850. A recent study of German prostitutes has noted that "prostitution probably reaches its heights in a country during the second wave of industrialization when heavy industry excludes women from participation in the labor force." Only later in the industrialization process, with the growth of a tertiary clerical and service sector, are women able to find opportunities for employment; at this later stage, prostitution declines.[50] Ruth Rosen, in her study of American prostitution, suggests that this same pattern prevailed in the United States in the nineteenth century, with the peak of women's engagement in prostitution taking place between 18S0 and 1900 and beginning to decline in the early twentieth century.[51] As applied to New York City, this rather mechanical correlation of prostitution to other job possibilities suggests that Sanger's 2.1 percent rate might well be taken as a rather conservative basis for estimating the number of prostitutes in the years after 1850.

The discussion above has compared the number of prostitutes to the number of females of all ages in New York; intuitively, of course, we would suspect that—and in fact, as will be seen below, we are able to confirm that—the vast majority of prostitutes were women in their teenage and young adult years, roughly between the ages of 15 and 30. If we consider that approximately 2 percent of all women in New York were probably prostitutes in the mid-nineteenth century, we might assume that the rate was considerably higher, perhaps 5 to 6 percent, in the age groups most active in the prostitution trade.[52] In the next chapter, we examine statistical data that will help us develop a composite demographic portrait of prostitutes in New York, but first it is important to focus on the women involved as individuals—working women with motivations, relationships, aspirations, and experiences that help us understand their story in its many human dimensions.


1 "The Terrible State of Society and Morals . . . in Unhappy New York" Nineteenth-Century Moralism and the Prostitution Problem

Preferred Citation: Hill, Marilynn Wood. Their Sisters' Keepers: Prostitution in New York City, 1830-1870. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1993.