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Reviewed by:
  • Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains
  • Erik J. Brock
Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains. By Jan MacKell. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009. Pp. 458. $34.95 (cloth).

In Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains historian Jan MacKell, director of the Cripple Creek (Colorado) District Museum, continues the work of her previous book, Brothels, Bordellos, and Bad Girls, the subject of which was prostitution in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Colorado, by expanding [End Page 177] her focus in this book to Arizona, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. In addition to the solid, substantial, and well-researched text, the book is illustrated with eighty-one historical images depicting brothels of every stripe, both exterior and interior, as well as images of a number of the individuals discussed within its pages. Some are published here for the first time, and others have not seen the light of publication in many years.

Within its pages we find discussions of early prostitution in the West, including that found among the native Indians and the immigrant Asians (many sent by their families specifically to earn money as prostitutes), and how the many prostitutes and madams of the “mainstream” Anglo populations conducted their business. We are given historical data on such aspects of the trade as birth control (such as there was), venereal disease, rates and hours, hygiene, ethnicity, chemical use and abuse, laws and ordinances regulating prostitution, and the various sorts of operations from streets and back alleys to saloons and parlor houses. And, of course, there is much about the girls and women themselves, from streetwalkers to crib girls, to parlor house inmates, to the madams. Why did they come to the towns of the Rockies? Why did they get into the sex trade? Some came to escape difficulties at home or with the law, while others sought wealth or more often just wanted to make a living in a world that offered few financial opportunities to females. Some were widowed or abandoned and had no place else to turn. Others were forced into the trade, and some came to it because of addictions, false advertising, and a score of other reasons. Many hoped for a life after prostitution either as wives or as independent women living on their saved earnings. Many more left the trade only through death, which came early all too often.

Certainly there are the larger-than-life prostitutes whose names have come down to us through history, and MacKell discusses them, but an important part of this book’s value is the fact that she also discusses the lives of many of the lesser-known women of the business whose lives and stories are representative of many thousands of others who have vanished into anonymity. MacKell also discusses the development of the position of prostitutes in the society of the Rocky Mountain region as these areas themselves developed and grew. The economic, social, and even political influences of prostitutes on the areas in which they lived and worked are thoroughly treated in this book, something that is seldom seen in scholarship on the Old West. Not infrequently, the role of prostitution was a stabilizing one on the developing frontier, a fact that those who later built upon the foundations they helped to lay all too often chose to ignore or suppress. MacKell relates numerous succinct biographies, sometimes recounted in the entertaining style of a raconteur more than that of a scholar, and I say this in absolutely the most complimentary way. Her presentation is often as colorful as the stories she recounts.

Although most prostitutes did not come to the trade by choice, and although many did not survive the hardships of life as sex workers in the [End Page 178] harsh environments in which they found themselves, the fact that they were so influential both as a class and individually is testimony to their fortitude. The old tales of prostitutes with a heart of gold are not always canards to be dismissed as retrospective romanticism. There were indeed those who bequeathed legacies that benefited education, medicine, civic development, and even religious institutions. Whether benefactresses of their communities, grifters...


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