In 1881, Tombstone, population of around 5000 inhabitants, supported 110 saloons and fourteen 24 hour gambling halls. It is no wonder that “the red light women” or The Shady Ladies (Big Nose Kate pictured (right), seated, and sister, standing. Older Kate right, below.) practicing the world’s oldest profession, were among the first to arrive, and the most welcomed, in the mining camp.
Some of the women were part-time entertainers, hoping to strike it rich; some enjoyed their work, while others did it just for the money. For most, it was the only avenue to survival. The more acceptable trades for women, such as seamstress, cook or laundress, paid only the lowest of wages. Without a man to take care of her, a woman’s choice was often that of scandal or suicide. Though considered by most to be sinful, these women chose survival and were proud, rugged, and independent.
An attractive, pleasant woman soon learned that she could name her price. Some worked at local theatres and dance halls. The older and less attractive women worked on the street, in the saloons where they were paid a percentage for caging drinks from the customers, or in the cribs.
Prostitution was legal in Tombstone as long as the proper city license for the business of “House of Ill Fame” was purchased. Revenue collected from the sale of these licenses was, for many years, the sole source of financial support for Tombstone’s schools. Although considered to be a profession of sin, large contributions helped to build area churches, and during times of illness, the parlor houses not only housed the sick, but the girls provided their care.
A crib, consisting of one room, approximately 10×8, constructed from rough lumber with a tin roof, was the worst place to work. To ensure that her customers could find her, the woman’s name was painted on the door. The cribs were rented to prostitutes at a price of $3 per day, payable in advance. The rooms were sparsely furnished and arranged for a quick turnover. The customer removed only his hat! The customers were miners, laborers, soldiers, and a very few cowboys, as Tombstone was a mining camp. On payday it was not unusual for a girl to entertain as many as 70 men. Disease, alcoholism and drug addiction were her destiny. The fees were typically: Chinese, Negro, Indian 25 cents Mexican 50 cents French 75 cents American $1.00.
The parlor houses were of various designs, however, all required PAYMENT IN ADVANCE and posted the sign SATISFACTION GUARANTEED OR MONEY REFUNDED. Due to local restrictions, the parlor houses were located in the same area as the cribs. In sharp contrast, the parlor houses were furnished with carved furniture, red velvet drapes, full length mirrors, exotic paintings, and deep soft rugs. Most were two stories.
The first floor was usually a saloon where drinking, dancing, and gambling took place. These customers were served by young, attractive maids and a uniformed butler. The girls would line up for the customer to make his choice. The madam was paid and the man escorted upstairs to one of the elaborately and lavishly decorated private rooms. The standard fee was $10; overnight cost up to $30. Young women of exceptional beauty and older women with special skills or well known passionate ability demanded higher prices. The madam took half of the girls’ fees as well as $5-$20 room and board per week depending on the times.
During the California gold rush, the brass or bronze check for the house came into use. It was the standard token. The check was purchased from the madam and presented to the girl who would cash in the checks for payment. Each house accommodated between 5 and 30 girls who could make up to $150 per week. In comparison, miners made only $3 for a 12 hour shift!
The hours of operation were noon to daybreak, and the girls got 1 day a week off. Huge profits were made from the sale of beer, whiskey, wine, and champagne. The competition was fierce. Most madams allowed their girls to pass out business cards with the girl’s name and the house’s address. Others were allowed to sell nude photos of themselves in unusual poses. Most were known only by nickname, both to protect their families and in the hopes of marrying respectably in the future.