Of Red Lights and Research

19 Dec

When I began my career as a graduate student in History, I knew that I wanted to focus on the American West. While popular culture has developed the myth of the lone rider traveling the region with absolute freedom, I realized that the truth was more complicated than that. People who went into the West were not looking for freedom. They were looking for economic opportunity. Therefore, I became interested in the economic aspects of the West rather than the typical subjects, such as gunfighters and outlaws. Of course, economics encompasses a great deal, and I was informed by my guiding professor that some limitation were in order. Then, the following transpired.

I would like to study the cattle industry.

There’s already a lot of research on that. What else are you interested in?

The mining industry was huge. How about that?

That’s been done to death, too.

Ok, what about the lumber industry?

That won’t work either.

(This is when I realized that I should go ahead and ask him what I should do.)

Ok, what should I do?

Did you ever think about researching prostitution? People are just not starting to look into it.

Sounds great to me. Thanks.

With that short conversation, I began life as an expert on prostitution in the American West. Through the years, I have read, researched, written and spoken about the economics of prostitution in the West and the everyday lives of the people involved in the industry. When people (especially men) find out about what I know about, they immediately start in. What are the brothels in Nevada like? Leave it to you to study whores. Ever study the whores on Dickerson Road (a notorious spot in Nashville)? I am left to explain that I have conducted scholarly research about dead prostitutes – not ones that are currently working. And, I did not choose the topic because I am a pervert. With this in mind, here is a synopsis of my life as a historian of prostitution in the West.

I went to graduate school in Tennessee, and my fellow students said only I would choose a topic halfway across the continent to research. People usually research something more conveniently located. However, I was not going to pick the Civil War or Andrew Jackson over the American West. I read all I could locally but knew that I would eventually have to travel. Luckily, I found two brothel museums fairly close together. The first was the Dumas Brothel in Butte, Montana. I spent several weeks in Butte and came to know the city quite well. Actually, there’s not much to know. I spent a lot of time at the Dumas, the archives and the Denny’s. I met some great people who helped me considerably and learned a great deal about the history of the city and of the Red Light District.

Wallace, Idaho sits just over the Idaho/Montana border and was home to the second museum, the Oasis Rooms. I only spent a few days in Wallace, but the people there were more than helpful. I took some great pictures and got some greater information.

With the information gathered from these locations and documents about the industry throughout the West, I was able to write a concise history about prostitution. In the midst of getting my graduate degree, I was hired at my current teaching position. As a new faculty member, students had no idea what to expect. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect either. But, I was determined not to let the research go to waste. I was going to talk about whoredom every chance I got. The first class was stunned when I gave the lecture on the 19th Century sex industry, and it was not long before word got around. I was the cool teacher that studied prostitutes instead of something uncool like regular History. From then until now, my classes constantly fill, and my office is always busy. They come by to see the photographs of prostitutes and the paintings of brothels on my walls.

As a small university, we are also expected to speak to community groups and perform other types of community service. This has created some interesting speeches for me. I am a member of the local Rotary Club and was asked to speak when I first joined. They insisted that I talk about my research. I tried to warn them that it wasn’t all fuzzy stories about Miss Kitty and the “whore with the heart of gold”, and they said it was fine. So, I gave them all the gory details. I think half of the audience was gone by the time I was finished, as several women walked out in disgust. Interestingly, no men left. I learned something that day. While people say they want to know history, they would rather not know the darker sides of the subject. I toned down the presentation after that experience.

Many people think that if I know about prostitution in the 19th Century American West, then I also know about prostitution at all other times as places. A retired colleague thought that and told the Daughters of the American Revolution that I would speak to them. When I said that they probably know more about the revolution than I do, he replied that I should talk about prostitution. I knew nothing about prostitution in the American Revolution, so I did some research. But, with the Rotary experience behind me, I was nervous about talking to a room full of elderly women. To make it go smoother, I used a historical code word – camp-followers – instead of a more descriptive term. As I spoke, I heard the following conversation between told ladies in the back.

What’s he talking about?






Oh, now I understand.

So, now I am famous in my little town as the expert on whores. An older man in town, who has since passed away, came to me with a book that he had read about a madam in New Mexico. He had found a name in it that he recognized – mine. I was used as a footnote in the introduction, which was written by the professor who sent me on the journey through the Red Light Districts. I was proud to see my name in print and, for the first time, felt like a real historian. I bought a copy for my parents. They looked at it, and my mom said, “All those years of study, and you are in a book with a picture of a naked women on the front of it.”

Yep, I had made it.

10 Responses to “Of Red Lights and Research”

  1. stephenpaterson December 19, 2011 at 14:00 #

    Thank you, I enjoyed this. I see you write elsewhere that history is your job and you blog to get away from it, but I do hope you return to this subject from time to time, there is much we could learn from history, but notoriously don’t.
    Now presumably in exploring the history of sex work/prostitution, you would also have to study the suppression of it. Do you go along with the notion that legislators don’t determine the extent of the sex industry, but rather determine its shape? Be warned, there are many questions I could ask, and you might only encourage me….

    • Tennessean-Historian-Blogger December 19, 2011 at 20:06 #

      Thanks for checking out my blog. Honestly, I haven’t kept up with government interaction with the modern day sex industry. However, I know what happened in the 19th Century West. The industry began to face issues when moral objectors (churches) moved into the towns. I have a real issue with government legislating morality and trying to tell people how to live their lives. Prostitution, like many other things, has always been around and always will. It seems that legalizing the industry would make it safer for those involved and provide another revenue stream for governments through taxation.

      When I began to research the subject, the historians who worked with me had difficulty with my mindset. I had always viewed, as many do, prostitutes as victims. I had to learn that women I studied were not victims. If we classify them as that, then we are taking away the power they wield in their own lives.

      • stephenpaterson December 19, 2011 at 20:40 #

        Well, I’ve emailed a recommendation for this post to Maggie McNeill, a retired courtesan who takes as much interest in the history of courtesaning as courtesaning itself, and the complex politics thereof, then and now, whether in the American west or wherever. Her blog is a constant and educating entertainment:

      • Tennessean-Historian-Blogger December 19, 2011 at 20:48 #

        Thank you for that. I am definitely going to follow your blog and keep informed. I always like to learn from others with interest in this subject to add to my historical perspective.

  2. booksnob December 19, 2011 at 17:31 #

    How cool that you were mentioned in the book! I’m sure that it’s a pretty fascinating subject, and wouldn’t mind reading you expound further on it here.

    I can’t stop laughing at “I am left to explain that I have conducted scholarly research about dead prostitutes.”

    Also, I spent a good portion of my youth not all that far away from where you studied in Idaho and Montana. My junior year in high school, our Envirothon team spent the night in Butte on our way home and we tried to convince our chaperon to take us on the tour of the Dumas.

    Small world. 🙂

    • Tennessean-Historian-Blogger December 19, 2011 at 19:56 #

      It is a small world indeed. The Dumas is an interesting place, and the fight between its owner and the city government is an interesting one. When I was there, I met a retired prostitute and a tour guide that dreamed of being one I believe. I have gotten some good response from this post, so I will come back to it again. I didn’t realize there were so many adult oriented blogs on here. Ha.

      Also, the drawings on your blog are really cool. There are some talented people in your house.

      • booksnob December 19, 2011 at 20:37 #


        Thanks for the compliments! A friend of mine does the drawings for me, and she’s super cool. We realize they’re not exactly the most refined, but it gets the point across. I was particularly pleased with my monocle in the most recent post.

      • Tennessean-Historian-Blogger December 19, 2011 at 20:44 #

        They are very cool. I hope you got to use the massage gift certificate.

      • booksnob December 19, 2011 at 21:17 #

        Soon. Really.

      • Tennessean-Historian-Blogger December 19, 2011 at 22:00 #

        Just watch out for the shoes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: