Monday, March 6, 2017

BEHIND THE LOCKED DOORS OF SHERIDAN'S ROOMIN' HOUSES!



The year after I moved back to Wyoming, 2013,  was the 125th Anniversary of Sheridan County Wyoming. During that time, I worked at the local museum and had a wonderful time learning more about the area and digging through historical artifacts.  One of the first things I learned was Sheridan County was created during the height of the Johnson County Cattle War. The people in northern Johnson County said, "No way are we dealing with this..." and broke away creating their own county.

As I helped tear down prior exhibits, I learned about those "red door" (and in one case literally a red door) areas of Sheridan and the women who lived and survived behind them. These women, sometimes ostracized, often played an important part or at least their part in this cattle, mining, and farming community.

Today we’re going to visit the roomin' or sportin’ houses of Sheridan, Wyoming. 

March 9, 1888, Sheridan County Wyoming was founded with the county seat being the town of Sheridan.  Ranches, mines, railroads, mills and a brewery all became important entities of Sheridan’s history.  As much a part of this history were Sheridan’s brothels.  The town’s red light district boomed from 1888 through the early 1900s with the last of the “houses” closing in the 1960s.

The Sheridan County census, in 1900, listed Jane Stewart “Missoula Jane” and along with six other “dressmakers” and two “laundresses” living on Val Vista and First Streets. Police records that same year recorded Jane Stewart’s arrest for renting a house to Ida Fitzgerald for prostitution.

Lizzie Lane ran a house on East Grinnell Avenue.  Lizzie came from Kentucky, as did the cook she brought with her.  Her seven girls, all black, ranged in age from 22 to 29 and came from various parts of the South.

Fifteen Ladies of Ill Repute were arrested for violating Ordinance #72, Sect. 3. Thirteen of the girls were fined $5.50 each. Two, Nellie Lay and Vivian Crawley were fined $15.50, leading researchers to believe their higher fine meant these women were the proprietors.

Despite arrests and fines, by 1910, houses of ill repute lined East Grinnell Street. Main Street, North Connor and Custer also had a few houses scattered among other businesses and residences. The census listed 70 “soiled doves” in business. They are listed as inmates in houses of prostitution or proprietors. Sixteen houses are marked F.B. on the city’s map. This meant there was a female border (i.e. prostitute) at that house.

A further look at the city’s census records from the early 1900s sheds light on why “female borders” were choosing to settle in Sheridan. At this time Sheridan had a population of 10,000, with the majority of the population being very young men in their 30s and unmarried. Sheridan, the city and the county, was a region of mines, railroads, construction jobs, and of course cowboys.

It was also a time of few choices for women if they were single, divorced or abandoned. One researcher found that “out of 39 of the prostitutes on the census were single, seven divorced, 17 had been married, or were married, with a total of 12 children.” (George Gligoria)

Some of the “respectable” women of Sheridan benefited from the working girls selling them dishes and making their clothes.  One local woman remembers her aunt making dresses, slippers, handbags and lingerie for the girls during the early 1900s. Though she managed a peek at some of the items, her aunt kept the lingerie well hidden from prying eyes.  She also never saw the girls and didn’t know if they came to the house, or her aunt went to them.

She recalled the skirts being “hobble skirts; tight from the hip down with a drape up to the knees…Some were split. They were very tight. Girls could hardly walk in them. They were sleeveless with a low-cut neckline.”  Surprisingly, the dresses had no frills like lace or beads, but they were always made of satins in shades of pinks, greens, yellows, and blues.  Their slippers were covered in satin to match.  Cantaloupe seeds would be washed, dried and strung to tack on the satin handbags and the dresses.  As the girl walked the seeds would shake and show satin.

Not all of the soiled doves in Sheridan wore satin. As in most places there were four levels of prostitution in Sheridan.  From the elegant parlor houses like The Castle to the middle-class saloons and finally the cribs and hog ranches that catered to the lowest class of men.  Street walking was all but eliminated in the city by arrests and fines. There was a limit to what was acceptable to the citizens of Sheridan.

By 1919, there was a shift to the Red Light district from Grinnell to Main and East Works. Prostitution houses included My Hotel, Rex Hotel, Irma Hotel, Elgin Rooms, the Shirley House, and a sheep wagon parked behind Crescent.

Prohibition failed to curtail prostitution in Sheridan. There were more arrests, but through the 1930s the Rex Hotel, the Irma and the Antlers and the Palm rooms continued to operate without interruption. Side note: Prohibition didn’t curtail drinking in Wyoming either because…it’s Wyoming, but that’s a story for another day.

One of the most infamous madams was Pearl Logan, born Pearl Colett. Although Pearl ran a series of rooming houses for over 40 years, she is best known as the proprietor of the Rex Hotel from 1930 to 1960. Five working girls resided in the large rooming house.  During her long rein at the Rex, Logan secured a strong affinity with law enforcement, tenants and the girls. Sheepherders and cowboys who came to town for a bender, or for an entire off -season trusted Pearl more than the local banks and left most of their earnings with Logan. She kept their money safe from gambling tables and thieves and a cowpoke’s summer wages remained safe.

Govtpamphlet
Image courtesy of the Sheridan County Museum

When the U.S. Government decided to get tough on sexually transmitted diseases, Pearl did her part posting the pamphlets around the Rex.  The Rex closed in 1965, along with all the big houses, when County Attorney Henry Burgess ran a campaign to stop prostitution and gambling. Pearl Logan died in 1977.

Despite the taboo of their profession the women were said to be “extremely clean, well-cared for by doctors and very likable.” The women who sold items to them described them as nice women.

A cab driver from the early 1950s said the girls were great tippers. They would tip 50 cents to a dollar on a fare of 35 to 40 cents.  However, as nice as he thought the girls were he transported them “solo” rather than with other customers.

Whether parlor house or crib, these women lived harsh lives often cut short by disease or violence, but the fact is these women lived and contributed to the history of Sheridan. Some of the women were able to secure a bit of respect, and from what I could find most were considered kind and generous by many of Sheridan’s citizens.

As with most, this is not meant to be the whole story, just a small peek behind the locked doors of Sheridan’s rooming houses.



SOURCES:
THE SHERIDAN PRESS.  “Working Girls: Early Sheridan Haven for Brothels.”  Saturday-Sunday, August 21-22, 1999. pgs. 1-2.

THE LOG.  “The Business of Sin in Sheridan.” Vol. 2, Number 1, Spring 2010. Pgs. 1 and 7.




 Kirsten Lynn is a Western and Military Historian. She worked six years with a Navy non-profit and continues to contract with the Marine Corps History Division for certain projects. Making her home where her roots were sewn in Wyoming, Kirsten also works as a local historian. She loves to use the history she has learned and add it to a great love story. She writes stories about men of uncommon valor…women with undaunted courage…love of unwavering devotion …and romance with unending sizzle. When she’s not writing, she finds inspiration in day trips through the Bighorn Mountains, binge reading and watching sappy old movies, or sappy new movies. Housework can always wait.

12 comments:

  1. Interesting post, Kristen. Whether we like it or not, prostitution had it's role in frontier society and it also helped women to achieve privledges not previously available to women. Waco, my home town had it's red light district. It was called The Reservation. Maybe one day my husband and I will make a road trip to Sheridan. We both love history.

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    1. Glad you stopped by, Linda. Prostitution really did have its place, I think out here in the West more than any other, for better or worse. Hope you'll be able to make it out here sometime.

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  2. This was particularly interesting because of the minute details, such as the hobble dresses. I wonder if they were designed as such to literally hobble the women..from running? And the cantaloupe seeds on satin...very intriguing, and who would have ever thought of that.
    I have always thought of prostitutes from back then as pathetic and lonely and sad. I cannot imagine any would truly be happy.
    I my novel TEXAS TRUE, my young heroine, True Cameron, impulsively marries older, more experienced Sam Deleon. Turns out, Sam has a sister who is a prostitute in Old Austin and she has two little children--a boy and a girl. She is dying from disease and brings them to True (Sam is off in the oilfields)...wow, does this cause a furor. I've thought about these two children and imagine them grown and...I want to write their story. So far, it hasn't quite come to me.
    Every city and town, I guess had a brothel.
    San Antonio certainly had a famous one, visited by famous outlaws. But it was shut down by Dwight D. Eisenhower when he because commander of an Army base there. Thanks!

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    1. I found the cantaloupe seeds interesting for two reasons, I didn't realize cantaloupe was something available in the area in even the late 1800s and that someone thought of that way to use them. I picture the hobble dresses like what we call mermaid dresses today. I assumed it was to show off their assets.

      I can't imagine any would be truly happy either, Celia, but then I don't know. I've read of some of the prostitutes who prospered and made a real business out of it, although I think this is the exception not the rule.

      I loved TEXAS TRUE, Celia. The Camerons are still some of my favorite characters. And I fear most girls in the business ended up as Sam's sister.

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  3. I have always felt sympathy for the women who became prostitutes back then. There were so few choices for women and many of the prostitutes had been molested at home and had run away--only to end up on their backs.

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    1. True Caroline, or abused by husbands who sold them into the business. There are very few, if any, true stories of soiled doves rescued by the handsome rancher as portrayed in some romances.

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  4. Prostitution in the Old West is one of my fascinations for research. These were some tough women who endured (and often succumbed to) this way of life. I really enjoyed your article. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. It is an interesting topic, I agree, Kaye. The reasons many fell into prostitution are as varied as the women. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  5. This was fascinating, and not a subject I usually explore. Just too emotionally painful. However, I'm writing a contemp paranormal romance set in a small Wyoming town, and I was intrigued. Very good post! There just wasn't that much real opportunity for women in 'them' days. What little I have heard or read, there were a few women who were successful and 'happy' in that profession. Although, they were usually the high class ladies of the evening, and some of them did end marrying well. Not the majority of women, though. So sad.

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    1. Glad you stopped by, Savanna, and found the article interesting. It is a difficult subject. I think very few ended up with anything close to a happy ending. Best of luck with your story.

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  6. I was so surprised to learn that men felt so comfortable entrusting their money to Pearl, a woman running a house of prostitution.
    I wanted to laugh about Prohibition's inability to curtail prostitution or alcohol. Really, who would have ever thought such a law could stop activities that had been practiced since the beginning of the human race?
    As sad as it may have been for these women to end up as prostitutes, it seems they overcame their circumstances and, in spite of everything, had money, security, and seemed content, maybe even happy, with their lot in life.
    Once again you have brought out a chunk of Wyoming history that has astounded me, Kirsten.

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    1. No, I don't think Prohibition did a lot to stop anything in Wyoming from what I've found. Thanks so much for stopping by and reading the article, Sarah.

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