Deadwood is probably my favorite show of all time. That’s for many reasons–the story, the amazing acting of Ian McShane and Brad Dourif among many others, the language. But among the reasons is the way the show gets at the filth and nastiness of the late 19th century. Some people didn’t like it because the show seemed so over the top in language, violence, and the general portrayal of that society. But while people didn’t exactly speak like the characters of Deadwood, the overall brutality was actually quite accurate, especially considering this is a wild frontier town.
I was reminded of this when recently reading Sharon Wood’s The Freedom of the Streets: Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City. This book is about prostitution and gendered conceptions of the streets in late 19th and early 20th century Davenport, Iowa. Wood put together the lives of women who get called prostitutes (regardless of whether they were by modern standards or not). Remember how in Deadwood women like Trixie and Joanie Stubbs were sold to pimps? That was not uncommon at all.
Josie Mitchell was a downwardly mobile woman who ended up opening a brothel. Her daughter Sevilla married a man at the age of 15. He was soon selling her out as a prostitute and living on the proceeds. Minnie Hagan was homeless at the age of 13 and working as a prostitute to eat. She came from a broken home. She remained a prostitute during her marriage, which was to a pretty violent man. He eventually shot her in the head, but she survived.
Moreover, the age of consent in Iowa until the 1890s was 10. That’s right. 10. As it was in most states. This meant that if a girl came from a house not considered “respectable,” she was open game for sexual exploitation by men without legal means to punish them. It also meant that statutory rape charges could not be issued against men who had sex with young girls. In September 1891, a 10 year old Davenport girl named Ada Ammerman disappeared from her home. After three days she and two other young girls named Dolly Hamerly and Mamie Woods were discovered. Their clothes were soaked with semen. Three men were soon arrested and charged with 8 counts of rape. But they were found not guilty. While reformers wanted to end this practice and save these girls, men, including the entire political establishment of the city, defended the sporting men’s right to sexually use women they found on the streets. Rather, the defense successfully used the argument that these girls’ families had failed the city by allowing their girls on the street where they would be irresistible to men. The girls were already prostitutes by coming from poor families and being on the street. These girls were publicly tainted with this definition of them. Soon after this, Dolly Hamerly was sold to a brothel by her family. Eventually, this trial and other similar events led Iowa to raise the age of consent. To the ripe old age of 13.
In other words, Deadwood‘s portrayal of its prostitutes was not inaccurate. Unfortunately because in knowing that you also know the brutal real stories of women in the 1890s who lacked economic options to do much of anything outside of prostitution if they were poor and who were considered open game on the streets if they did not come from respectable families.