There is a false impression of the past shared by many who long for the “good old days”. In the eyes of some, in the past people did nothing but go to church, pray, and do good deeds every day. It’s bulls!t, of course, but the mythic view of the American past survives and is still alive and well today. The truth is, however, that from child prostitution to murder most foul, the 19th Century had it all. The same issues we face now were, for the most part, around back then too. There truly is nothing new under the sun.
In the 1860s, an Englishman visited New York City after the end of the Civil War. He left a wonderful account called Sunshine and Shadow in New York. Though naturally you have to take some of his words with a dose of salt, much of it rings true. Smith, the author, reported that the NYPD in 1866 listed 615 Houses of Prostitution, 99 Houses of Assignation, 75 Concert Saloons of vile repute, 2,690 Prostitutes, 629 waiter girls, and 127 vile bar maids. He goes on to say that waiter girls “are not of the highest moral order”. Now I’m not entirely sure what the difference between a house of prostitution and a house of assignation is, but I assume there must have been one as they were listed separately. Smith also observed “cheap hotels are used for the purposes of infamy.” In other words, they had no tell motels back then too! 30 years earlier, another visitor when speaking of the Five Points said “Every house was a brothel, and every brothel a hell.”
Inside these establishments, women engaged in the oldest profession. Some by choice, but more often by necessity. Girls coming from the countryside to look for work in the city often found themselves drugged and shanghied into a life of prostitution. I also use the word “women” but in reality, many of them were either barely into adulthood or not adults at all. Rumors persisted in the 1860s that Bridget McCarthy who owned a brothel on the corner of Mott and Bayard specialized in providing young virgins for men from the upper classes. When I say young, I mean in the 11-13 age range. Technically it was sort of frowned on, but perfectly legal.
And it wasn’t just New York City. Descriptions of other large cities from the era, including London, are similar to what Smith described in his book. Did you have such goings on in rural areas too? Not to this extent, of course, but yes, violence, child sex abuse, and murder existed in small towns as well. And speaking of murder, everyone has at least heard of Jack the Ripper. But did you know that three years before his reign of terror in London’s East End, another killer stalked the streets of Austin, Texas? Austin was not a big city at all in 1884-5, though it was the state capital. This killer became known as The Servant Girl Annihilator which, in my opinion, is the greatest serial killer name of all time.
Most of your big city newspapers from the period are available on microfilm. If there is a university near you, they probably have enough of them that you can get a good look at life from 1865-1900. Just as now, they talk about crime, corruption, scandal, etc. Spend time reading them and you’ll find that life back then was not all that different than today. In other words, there is no such thing as “the good old days”. Especially if you were a minority.