Authors: Sandra Dallas
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Mystery & Detective
He wondered if Friday would be too soon to call on her.
Some fifty years ago, when I wrote my first nonfiction book about the American West, prostitution was the province of male historians. They emphasized the glitter and naughtiness of the parlor house girls and their affluent clientele, whose cold and haughty wives drove them to the dens of iniquity. The brothels were monuments to ostentation in which good taste played little part. There were grand pianos, rich woodwork, and lavish draperies and furniture, along with mirrored walls and ceilings that showed off the parlor girls to advantage. The women were beautiful and elegant, and many had turned to the sporting life because it was exciting. Or so the historians wrote.
Only after I began researching did I realize how multilayered prostitution in the early West really was. While there were indeed a few exclusive brothels where jewel-bedecked inmates were feted at champagne suppers, far more common were the women at the other end of the spectrum, the “crib girls.” An 1886 newspaper account of a suicide, which I quoted in
Cherry Creek Gothic,
my history of Victorian architecture in Denver, describes in Dickensian manner the hovel of one such prostitute:
The walls and ceiling were absolutely black with smoke and dirt, excepting where old, stained newspapers had been pasted on them—on the ceiling, to exclude rain and melting snow, and on the walls, to cover up spots from which the plastering had fallen. The floor was rickety and filthy. Around the walls were disposed innumerable unwashed and battered tin cooking utensils, shelves, for the most part laden with dust, old clothing, which emitted a powerful effluvium, hung from nails here and there; or tumble down chairs, a table of very rheumatic tendency, on which were broken cups, plates and remnants of food, were [sic] scattered all over its surface. An empty whiskey bottle and pewter spoon or two. In one corner and taking up half the space of the den was the bedstead strongly suggestive of a bountiful crop of vermin, and on that flimsy bed lay the corpse of the suicide, clad in dirty ratted apparel, and with as horrid a look on her begrimed, pallid features as the surroundings presented. No one of her neighbors in wretchedness had had the sense to open either of the two little windows in the room to admit pure air, hence the atmosphere was sickeningly impure and almost asphyxiating. “My God!” exclaimed Coroner McHatton, used as he is to similar scenes and smells in his official capacity, “Isn’t this awful?”
With the rise of women historians, the depiction of the West’s sporting women changed. Feminist writers emphasized the depravity and degradation of prostitutes, their addiction to drugs and alcohol, the squalor of their lives, their victimization, and the beastly conditions that led to suicide. Often the women started out in high-class houses, then spiraled downward. Some turned to prostitution after they were thrown out by their families because of indiscretions, while others were enticed by white slavers. And then there were women so poor they turned to prostitution as the only alternative to starvation.
The truth is both of these extremes existed, as did a middle ground. In Butte, Montana, some of the prostitutes were widows of miners, and they worked out of cribs during the day, when the kids were in school. In Breckenridge, Colorado, the prostitutes were part of the fabric of the town. The madam, Mae Nicholson, riding on her horse Gold and Silver, led the July Fourth parade. When I lived in Breckenridge in the 1960s, our neighbor was one of Mae’s former girls, a wiry, white-haired woman who fished early in the morning and left her catch on our doorstep for breakfast.
Like that generous neighbor, western prostitutes have always seemed to me to be real women, not stereotypes. So I’ve tried to depict them as such in
. The novel is not so much about prostitution as it is a story of family relationships, primarily between sisters, but set against a background of nineteenth-century vice.
In researching the manuscript, I consulted a number of books on prostitution, from Nell Kimball’s
Nell Kimball: Her Life as an American Madam
to David Graham Phillips’s
Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise
to Max Miller’s
The outstanding book on Colorado prostitution and early western law enforcement and the one I consulted most, however, was Clark Secrest’s
I’m greatly indebted to Clark, an old college buddy, not only for this extraordinary body of research but for reading my manuscript for errors. Among his corrections: police call boxes were not in use in Denver in 1885, and the “ladies” in Colorado were not referred to as “hookers” until the twentieth century.
My dear friends at Browne & Miller Literary Associates, Danielle Egan-Miller and Joanna MacKenzie, are not just agents but editors who sent me back to the drawing board again and again, until they were satisfied with the manuscript. It’s my good fortune that Browne & Miller took me on years ago and has shepherded every one of my novels to publication. At St. Martin’s Press, my superb editor, Jennifer Enderlin, with Sara Goodman, were helpful at every stage of the editing and printing process. My friends Arnie Grossman and Wick Downing supported me as only other writers can. And then there is my family—Bob, Dana, Kendal, Lloyd, and Forrest—whose love is infinite. And so is my love for them.
Also by Sandra Dallas
The Bride’s House
Whiter Than Snow
Prayers for Sale
The Chili Queen
The Diary of Mattie Spenser
The Persian Pickle Club
Buster Midnight’s Café
About the Author
SANDRA DALLAS is the author of twelve novels, including
True Sisters, The Bride’s House, Whiter Than Snow, Prayers for Sale, Tallgrass,
. She is a former Denver bureau chief for
magazine and lives in Denver, Colorado. Visit her at
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2013 by Sandra Dallas. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Cover design by Olga Grlic
Cover photograph © Mohamad Itani/
The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.
ISBN 978-1-250-03093-1 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-250-03094-8 (e-book)
First Edition: October 2013