It has been 13 months since I came across some photos of an unnamed 19th Century prostitute and, while reflecting on the image, recalled the lyrics to “Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum. Helen of Troy may have had a face that launched a thousand ships, but my ‘Molly’ launched a novel. I’m going through the editing process at the moment, for a couple of hours a day as I have other tasks taking up my time too. Fingers crossed, I hope to introduce you to Molly and her world at the end of the year. If you like books with strong female leads, you’ll love Molly just as I do, for she’s got a song in her heart and a knife in her boot.
Spending a year delving into the world of 19th Century prostitution and sex trafficking was depressing to say the least, but every now and then, I came across some great and often amusing sources which I will share with you here. You might find them of interest too. Keep in mind though, that as my wife says, I have the emotional maturity of a tubercular poet in the 19th Century, which is fair, given my affinity for Uranus jokes. I say that only to say this, if you have the slightest prudish tendencies or are desirous to avoid frank discussions of sexual content, even historical sexual content, you might want to give these sources a pass.
Perhaps the most interesting piece is this slim volume titled A Vest Pocket Guide to Brothels in 19th Century New York for the Gentleman on the Go. It was published in 1870 and gives very detailed descriptions of the various houses of ill fame which existed in the city at that time. Perhaps the most amusing part is in the beginning, the anonymous author says, “But we point out these locations in order that the reader may know how to avoid them…”. Sure….and I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. In my novel Molly’s Song, she works in a second tier establishment. Not the fanciest but not the seediest place either.
If you are going to be traveling through 19th Century New York, it is absolutely necessary that you know the language of the streets. Luckily, we have this dictionary of the slang terms used by the unfortunates who roamed the streets of 1850s New York. Are you a badger? A baster? A broken leg? Or a Confidence Man? Check out the dictionary to find out!
Published in 1869, Sunshine and Shadow in New York by the English visitor Matthew Hale Smith takes you a grand tour of Gotham. From wealth and splendor to abject poverty and misery, Smith spares you no details. And, as an added plus, the book is full of amazing illustrations worth of a volume all their own. And, Dear Reader, you can see the whole thing for free here!
If the history of sex and gender is you thing, then checking out this podcast is a must. They have a series of episodes on the history of sex and a very useful episode that delves into the details of the brothel guide referenced above. There is also another great episode about Civil War veterans and violence/imprisonment. This strips away the bogus image of the past as a place where there was no sex, no violence, and nothing but people going to church all the time. As I always say, Dear Reader, if you are the type who talks about the “good old days”, remember, you could buy a ten year old virgin on a street corner in New York City in 1860.
The Exploress podcast has a great episode on “public women” in the 19th Century. She covers a lot of ground in just over an hour and gives you a full look at how working girls, well, worked and how they were viewed and treated by society at the time. Given the rigid gender norms which society clung to in the 19th Century, any woman who did not conform often found herself labeled a prostitute, public woman, fallen woman, or soiled dove regardless of whether or not she was actually a sex worker. There was also a widely held belief at the time that “normal” women did not enjoy sex and thus prostitutes were obviously of loose morals since they must really enjoy sex otherwise they wouldn’t be prostitutes. Truthfully, prostitution back then was driven by the same dynamics of today. Sex trafficking, narcotics addiction, and economic desperation is what brought women into the brothels, not their enjoyment of sex.
This is the book which contains the photos of the prostitute who inspired Molly’s Song. The photos were taken in Pennsylvania in 1892, so obviously I decided to put Molly’s character here during the Civil War for reasons that I explain in the Author’s Note of my book. But all of the photos in this book are remarkable, not just the photos of ‘Molly’. They are artistic, and though it does contain lots of nude photos, they are not vulgar or pornographic. (And I’m saying that as someone who is a bit of a prude myself with heavy infusions of Irish Catholic guilt!)
And, of course, we have the song and original music video of ‘Runaway Train.’ Both the lyrics and the actual video worked in concert with the photos to provide the inspiration for the book. Writers are dreamers by nature, and perhaps when all is said and done, the series of Molly novels will be made into an Amazon or Netflix series starring Madison Lintz (with red hair) as Molly and having this song as the theme song. I think that would be grand indeed!
Obviously this is not even remotely close to all the sources I used. In a future post, I’m going to share some 19th Century quotations about NYC prostitution which will no doubt amuse and perhaps even repulse you.
So until next time, Dear Readers, take care of yourselves.
And each other.