Category Archives: scso records

race and the houses

Were there ever any women of color who worked there [in the brothels]? You know, for guys who wanted someone a little more, you know, like, ‘exotic’ or ‘spicy?’

Kayla, the events coordinator for Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane, asked me this question after my reading last week. She trailed off toward the end of her question, explaining that she was unsure how to ask about it and didn’t really know whether or not to ask about it at all. She worried it might make me uncomfortable, which is why she waited until after the event was over and I was just signing books for the store’s stock.

Kayla added:

As a black woman, I often find myself wondering about race at these kind of events, especially when it’s about history. Especially because this area is pretty white.

Before answering her question, I admitted that I felt like I didn’t address the topic adequately in the book. I wasn’t sure how to fit in some of what I had learned, in part because I was ashamed of it. (Especially the part that Possie discusses in the oral history I include later in this post.)

After the weekend’s racially-motivated violence in Charlottesville, however, it occurs to me that Kayla’s question was timely and others might be curious about it as well. So I thought I might talk about race and Wallace’s whorehouses in this post.

There were definitely women of color who worked in the houses all the way through the history of sex work in Wallace. In the book’s first chapter, I wrote about race in the early days of the mining camp. Here’s what appears on pages 37 and 38 (with brackets indicating sources that I footnoted in the book):

Newspapers reported several black women who were madams or sex workers as well. Even though race relations in the area were intolerant, African American women in Wallace lived in red-light districts, where they often operated laundry facilities and sometimes worked as sex workers as well, [Cynthia] Powell explained [in her thesis, “Beyond Molly B’Damn: Prostitution in the Coeur d’Alenes, 1880-1911”], adding that “there existed an indisputable demand for black prostitutes during the labor war of 1899, when a black regiment was brought in to quell labor tensions.” According to [Richard] Magnuson, the government chose black soldiers in particular because they were seen as less likely to befriend or sympathize with the miners.

Like the white women, black sex workers appeared in the paper most often because of violence or crime. [According to Powell’s research,] Ella Tolson, “who lived over the Troy Laundry in Wallace’s Pine Street sector,” was reported to have shot Howard B. Johnson, who was “described as ‘the most widely known colored man in Wallace.’” Irene Thornton owned a laundry business and the land it occupied in Wardner before moving to Wallace, where she was arrested for “conducting a disorderly house.” [footnoted reference: Idaho Press, March 18, 1905]  On March 25, 1893, the Coeur d’Alene Miner reported that “‘a colored woman who live[d] on the opposite side of the street,’ from the disreputable Montana Saloon, witnessed a brutal beating. Her vantage point, according to the newspaper’s description of her Wallace location, was an ‘Avenue A’ crib.” In the Silver Valley, black men and women seem to have inhabited roles that were relegated to Chinese immigrants in other western mining communities.

Here’s the context for Magnuson’s comment about the black labor regiment:

The town used to have blacks, but after the labor wars there was a stigma against them working underground. The black soldiers hadn’t been trained for the Spanish-American War, so that was why they came to Wallace. Also, they had less likelihood of fraternizing with the families and getting close to the prisoners in the bullpen. For a while Hank Day had a black maid in his household, but she left after a few years because she didn’t really find anyone to be friends with.

(You can read more about black regiments and/or so-called “Buffalo Soldiers” elsewhere, but I’m sorry to say I’m not the person to ask for recommendations on that topic. I’ve heard good things about John Langellier’s book, Fighting for Uncle Sam: Buffalo Soldiers in the Frontier Army, but I’ve not read it.)

And here’s the context for the last sentence in the book excerpt I quoted above, about black men and women inhabiting roles relegated to Chinese immigrants in other mining communities:

Unlike most mining camps, there was not really a significant presence of Chinese men and women in the early days of the Coeur d’Alene district. Patricia Hart and Ivar Nelson’s book Mining Camp talks a bit about this, but there are other published sources that reiterate this point. The few Chinese miners who braved this area faced deadly racism. I remember seeing signs for the “Silver Terror” mining claim when I was younger, and they chilled me because of the story my dad told me about their origin. Apparently the mining claim was so named because white miners stole it and hung the Chinese miners who’d discovered it. And that is why Terror Gulch is named Terror Gulch, according to the story.

There is physical evidence that women of color worked in the houses throughout Wallace’s history, however. In the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office records, which document the women who worked in the houses from 1952-1973, there are pictures of women who look African-American, Asian, and Latina or Hispanic, even though their records don’t list their race as such.

Screen Shot 2017-08-17 at 10.49.44 AM

This woman’s race was listed as “white.”

Other women in the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office files were described as “red” (for American Indian) or “Mexican.” Sometimes a specific American Indian tribe is listed. And the earliest records have a category for “color” instead of “race.” It looks like police officers either struggled with accounting for race because they assumed instead of asking, or some women purposefully tried to pass as a different race. For example, when one woman originally labeled “white” was later found to be biracial, the officers annotated her file by hand, writing, “this woman is mulatto” next to her picture. Another file shows a woman’s race changed to “Chinese.” Sex workers were sometimes labeled “white” under the race category, but then in another section, the officers describe her as “olive-skinned.”

The Barnard-Stockbridge Collection at the University of Idaho Library Special Collections and Archives has pictures featuring women of color who worked in the houses during the 1940s-1960s.


And the Oasis has one room with cassette tapes left behind by a sex worker in 1988, and these tapes feature mostly black recording artists and labels.


Cassette tapes left behind when the workers abandoned the Oasis Rooms

Oral histories also describe women of color in Wallace’s houses throughout history. Dick Caron has heard about a black woman who ran a house during the late 1930s and he thinks her name was possibly Rose or maybe people called her “Snowball.”

There is one oral history piece that I thought about putting in the book but I didn’t. I’ll just go ahead and put it out there now because Kayla and Charlottesville have me wondering if I should have included it in the book…

This is from a conversation at the Silver Corner, August 5, 2010:

Me: Were there any women allowed in the houses, aside from the women working there?

Possie: No. There’s a couple of times we’d try to get the women up. Yeah, you’d try and dress them up in a hat, or a ski mask, or something. Try and get them up there. And same thing with black guys, couldn’t get a black guy up there. They wouldn’t—

Bar patron interrupts: Is that true?

Possie: Definitely. We tried. We had a basketball tournament here in the early [nineteen] eighties. They would not let a black guy up there. The rumor was, because of Hank Day. He didn’t want anyone black.

Bar patron: Did Hank Day have an economic interest in those houses?

Possie: Oh huge. Hank Day was, you ever see [name omitted] house on the lake? That house was designed for whores. I mean the whole thing is like a motel, with separate rooms. He’d have the whole whorehouse down there.

Me: He’d have them there, or he’d hole up in the Lux Rooms, I heard.

Bar patron: What was his aversion? He was just a racist?

Possie: Well, I don’t know. I mean, yeah, probably. I don’t know if that’s, but I mean it was just, that was kind of the—yeah, he just wouldn’t allow it.

Second bar patron: Hank Day, like the Henry L. Day Medical Center Hank Day?

Possie: Yeah.

First bar patron: Like the Day Mines.

Possie: I’m gonna say, late [nineteen] seventies, early eighties.

Second bar patron: So when the black guys couldn’t get up there, was that before the civil rights movement, or afterward?

Possie: Afterward.

First bar patron: Well there weren’t that many black guys to begin with, Idaho’s not filled with African-Americans. Look around.

Possie: We had a basketball tournament here in the early eighties and it was I think [19]82, ’83, ’84, and it was big, it was a real big tournament, we had guys from Washington State playing, Gonzaga, Eastern Washington, Montana, Boise State, Idaho State, University of Idaho when Idaho had the good teams. Early eighties we were number seven in the country, we had them up here. And we got, we tried to get some of the guys into the whorehouses. And we even went before, trying to meet with them [the madams].

We didn’t want those guys coming here and thinking we were a bunch of racists. And see, we’d try to head it off before it happened. We wanted them to be able to come up to the whorehouses and you know, we didn’t want like the white guys only to be able to go up there, but they wouldn’t budge.

Second bar patron: You asked permission, and they were like, no?

Possie: We asked permission and didn’t get it. They would not budge.

But they were polite about it. They wouldn’t say, like, “No n*****, or no blacks,” or anything.

They’d just, they always, when you’d want somebody, they’d say, “The girls are busy now, the girls are busy now. Come back later, the girls are busy.” But they’d never—they’d look through the little peepholes, the glass thing, and they wouldn’t let them in.

First bar patron: Were they worried about trouble in there, probably?

Possie: Who knows.

Then, in my notes of this discussion, I stopped the transcription here to write:

Silence. Pos turns the music up.


interview with “the honest courtesan”

What I do is perfectly legal when it’s free.

— Maggie McNeill

Today I am excited to finally share an interview with the lovely Maggie McNeill aka The Honest Courtesan. McNeill lives in the Seattle area, where she is a whore for hire and outspoken advocate of sex worker rights. She writes a popular blog, which you can find here, where you can also buy a copy of her book, Ladies of the Night.


Screen Shot 2017-07-25 at 4.44.26 PMIn July 2015, McNeill took time out of her trip to visit a gentleman in Sandpoint to chat with me about the topic of sex work, morality, and politics. This topic has received a lot of attention in the time since we talked. McNeill and her Seattle colleague Mistress Matisse were featured in a widely-read and controversial New York Times Magazine article, “Should Prostitution Be A Crime?” for example.

Unfortunately, my talk with McNeill didn’t make it into my book, since my initial readers thought it didn’t really “fit” with the rest of the story about Wallace, although she does weigh in on the Silver Valley’s brothel-based model toward the end of the interview… McNeill calls herself “an overeducated whore who talks too much,” but I enjoyed our discussion very much and hope you will, too. I’ve excerpted the highlights below.


Continue reading

provisional diagnosis: prostitution

This patient absolutely vows that she does want to change her life. She says she has never been satisfied with it. She doesn’t feel its right to take the money from some of these poor men who have been her customers. She is ashamed of her life. She is ashamed, she says, when she faces other people. She said she would like to go to an LPN school. She likes to take care of the sick.

– Nevada State Hospital doctor, SSCO Files #913

As I mentioned in my last post, the SCSO Files contain one remarkable and unusual case detailing part of one woman’s life story as recorded by a male doctor when she was admitted to the Nevada State Hospital. He sent her record to the Wallace Chief of Police on January 14, 1966 (apparently before HIPAA in 1996, there was no comprehensive federal health privacy law), along with the following note:

This is a reply to your letter of January 12 regarding above-named person. She was committed to this hospital on a commitment for mental illness on February 24, 1965 and discharged March 22, 1965. At the hearing for commitment she stated that her husband was in the penitentiary in Montana and that her parents were in a mental institution in __________, Montana, however, it was later established that they worked in the hospital.

She was given an occupational assignment in our canteen and a job was obtained for her on the outside. However, she stayed there about two days and then left Reno stating that she was returning to Winnemucca, Nevada to resume her former occupation of prostitute.

A copy of her admission history is enclosed as a further source of information.

Within five months of her release, she would turn up in Wallace, working for Luoma Delmonte in the Jade Rooms, where she would remain for about five months before moving on. Her SCSO record indicates she had been “run out of town,” characterized as a “Hope Head” by the police (I think the intended phrase was “hophead,” aka addict):

officer notes on the file

officer notes on the file

It’s hard to tell whether or not this woman actually felt like it wasn’t right to take money from “these poor men who have been her customers,” or if that is doctor-added interpretation. I don’t know whether or not she was actually “ashamed” of her life or if she was just saying that to appease the doctor, who later goes on to write:

She has been told that her promises and her possible trying to impress the examiner mean nothing at all, that everything she does must be evidenced in her action—good ward behavior, willingness to work, some sort of a vow and sticking to it that she does really want to change her life and not just talk about it.

In the case of this woman, the doctor’s skeptical and parental tone barely covers what for me sounds like titillation as he takes down her life story.

But so many of the SCSO files also contain this sort of parental language and assessments of the women’s appearance and character. I imagine the women finishing their interviews with the madams and walking down the street to the sheriff’s office where they are “mugged and printed” in an impersonal, regulatory way as the police officers relish a personal preview of the incoming women who rotate in and out, ensuring variety for the customers (“fresh inventory,” as one person put it).

In more than a few cases, there is definitely a tinge of voyeurism in the commentary by the police officers doing the in-processing and out-processing. Maybe that’s just the inevitable outcome of treating a woman like a product that must be regulated.

Or maybe this is just what notes about real people sound like through the distancing lens of analysis.

In the case of this woman, I think it’s just the tone of the doctor’s voice that is upsetting to me, especially when he writes: “This young woman has had quite a career,” just before mentioning that “her father even carried on sex previously with her when she was a very young girl,” using the word “sex” instead of “rape,” as though she had been old enough as “a very young girl” to give her consent. (It’s possible that’s how she talked about it herself, but I still wish he’d been conscientious enough to make the distinction, regardless.) Later he writes, “One can go on and talk to this patient for half a day and continue to gather various material,” as though she is simply some fascinating object to study.

Or maybe it’s just that I am projecting my own fears: how am I any different? I ask myself, as I sift through my research. I guess that remains to be seen, but we have come a long way in terms of institutional research ethics and privacy, and I have been trying to ensure I respect my community’s willingness to participate in this work: I’ve taken courses on research ethics; I gained approval for my research from my university’s institutional review board; my research participants granted me informed consent or in some cases agreed to talk with me upon the conditions of anonymity.

Yet I still worry I might repeat the same violence of voyeurism. I remember finding out about “peeping toms” when I was growing up and feeling a paradoxical mixture of fear, confusion, indifference, and anger. But now, especially as I look back on my own research notes and try to write a narrative that brings my research to life, I sometimes wonder, where is the line between peeking into windows as opposed to sharing stories?

pages from my research notes

pages from my research notes

Maybe the difference is the tone and the motivation—tricky things to work with…


In the admission history, this woman is described as a “young blond,” who is “pleasant, perfectly oriented, she said she has been in the military organization as a Wave with an honorable discharge.” Military service is somewhat common for the women from this era. They joined the armed services in great numbers during WWII, sometimes prior to becoming sex workers, and in other cases the military provided a means of income/occupation sufficient to temporarily replace prostitution.

The doctor goes on to write that she “very frank, tells you all about her checkered career of prostitution, the various drugs she has been using. She is reasonably intelligent, pleasant, although when she had been sent back to the ward after the undersigned had interviewed her, she referred to him as an old something because he didn’t prescribe any medicine for her.”

Below, I include some additional chunks of this document with a bit of interpretation (all quotations sic):

The “Early Life” section reads:

She was brought up partly in her home and partly in the home of her grandparents. She had trouble with delinquency in the sense of running away when she was small but not shoplifting or stealing or other troubles.

Under “Schooling and General Knowledge” the doctor explains,

She went as far as the 10th grade. She has worked as an aide or an attendant at the ____________ Hospital, both when she was a high school student and later on for about a year afterward. She liked it. Names all the previous presidents, does well on President-King, Lie & Mistake, multiplies well except she misses 11 x 12, takes 7 from 100 for one subtraction and then fails. She is fairly familiar with world news. Her favorite funny paper are Peanuts and Beatle Bailey. She does well on both parts of the Cowboy Story.

[I have no idea what kind of tests President-King or Lie & Mistake are, and when I Google “the cowboy story mental health assessment” I pull up stories about football players…]

And then, as I mentioned earlier, there is the “Present Illness” section:

This young woman has had quite a career. She says that early in life she had sex; that her father even carried on sex previously with her when she was a very young girl and has tried since she has grown up but she will not let him do that any more. She has been engaged in prostitution for six years and has been taking drugs since she married her husband which was in 1961. She describes her husband as having been a criminal and drug addict for years. He had been married before, had no children. She had one child at the age of 14 and this child is with her mother at the present time and is now 8 years of age. It was OW [out of wedlock]. Patient started to work at prostitution in Montana; went from Montana to Vegas, Vegas to Winnemucca, Winnemucca back to Las Vegas, then up to Reno. She did no prostituting, however, in Vegas where she was only for a short time. While in Nevada she stayed in Winnemucca where she has done well, she says, in the hunting season.

On the first examination this patient says that she made as much as five and six and seven hundred dollars a day but when seen later she says the most she would make in a day for her own so-called ‘take home money’ would be about $150 or $165. The madam in the salons and houses takes 40% of the money. She got started on drugs from the husband, she claims, and from time to time she has used various drugs, Dilaudid, Morphine, Demerol, Cocaine, and Dolophine. In the beginning she says her husband was able to bring home plenty of drugs as he robbed drug stores. After that, however, she had to use her money from prostitution to go out and buy the drugs and while no attempt was made to get the name of the individual ckrokers [brokers?], most of her medication was obtained from doctors. … However, there was a doctor or two in Las Vegas who even knew she was nothing but an addict, continued to give her the drugs at $12 a visit, or give her the drugs to take. …

In the search for real psychotic material, there is none. The patient has never had any hallucinations, delusions, paranoid material or ideas of influence or reference. She says she knows she has been listed as a sociopath. She has done a little reading like most of the sociopaths have and is able to discuss her case, at least in a superficial fashion in a fair way. As to alcohol, she has done a good deal of drinking, too, in periods when she hasn’t been taking drugs. She even has taken drink before breakfast – Scotch for the most part. She has never had syphilis. She has had frequent blood tests. She has had Gonorrhea and been treated for it. She herself has never been in jail. She denies homosexuality. …

Provisional Diagnosis: Personality trait disturbance, emotionally unstable personality, with alcoholism and drug addiction and prostitution.”

In general, the doctor [perhaps unintentionally] minimizes the impact of systemic or male-caused problems where they appear to have affected her life. That’s most obvious in his language reducing paternal rape to incest, but is also apparent in the skeptical tone invoked as he comments on her interpretation of events: “she has done well, she says, in the hunting season,” or “She got started on drugs from the husband, she claims,” or where he reduces her to “nothing but an addict” while noting how it appears clear that doctors are knowingly enabling her habit.

I’m not sure what’s going on with the language questioning her sexual orientation, if that’s what it amounts to when he writes that “she denies homosexuality.” Seems like a strange way to put it…

Her file indicates that after leaving Wallace she returned to Montana. In a letter from the Miles City Police Chief to the Wallace Police Chief, we find out that she was “run out of town” there, too. The Miles City officer goes on to say, “I heard last week a couple of her girl-friends worked her over in Billings, Montana and put her in the hospital.”

about the shoshone county sheriff’s office files

“Definitely a screwball.”

— Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office file #474

“Do not let Betty return until she understands she is going to have to behave herself.”

— SCSO file #546

One of the items on my research to-do list: type up my hand-written research notes. Most of the work I did over the summer already made it into typed notes, but these haven’t yet.

Background: The Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) regulated the women who came into town to work in the brothels by keeping records on their activity. The women worked on what was known as “the circuit,” moving into and out of town in a transient way, traveling from one town to another like many of the miners did.

Before I gained access to the SCSO records this summer, I knew the circuit existed because too many of the oral histories and firsthand stories confirmed it, but I didn’t know which other towns were on the circuit, or how much time the women tended to spend in Wallace, or whether or not they moved around amongst the houses while in Wallace (a circuit within a circuit). I thought I was going to have to request the files through the Freedom of Information Act from the FBI, but instead Mitch Alexander donated them for research and preservation purposes. These records give me much of that information, but I haven’t even begun to code it yet, beyond taking preliminary notes by hand as I scanned them.

My collection now contains files on 530 women who worked in Wallace from 1952-1973. I have rap sheets for most of them (and thus records on prior offenses and previous towns), mug shots (or portrait pictures taken by local photographer Nellie Stockbridge in the earlier days), and some extra materials, like aliases and information on spouses, pimps, or in one remarkable case, an intake form from a mental hospital.

What kinds of questions can these files answer? SO MUCH. It’s hard to know where to start. So as I was taking my notes, I began by looking at what the police officers wrote about the women in their notes, and I also got caught up trying to make a list of towns that kept coming up over and over and therefore should be considered part of “the circuit” (which is actually more informal and plural, like circuitry). By looking at the disposition (how the charges were resolved), and especially whether or not the women were FMR (fingerprinted, mugged, and released), it is possible to say whether or not sex work was regulated by the police, decriminialized, or considered to be illegal in these other towns. It is also really interesting to see what other names prostitution was given. For example it was common to see the charge of “immoral woman” and uncommon to see the charge of “taxi dancer,” which appears to be Oakland and San Francisco specific.

Then it occurred to me that I might also be able to find crime patterns. 530 records across 21 years in a town never bigger than 4,000 people (according to Riley Moffat’s data) is a pretty significant dataset, right? Women don’t commit (or get convicted for) as much crime as men, and the large majority of offenders are nailed for prostitution (better source needed here too–I am pretty sure I heard this on a program like Freakonomics or some other radio journalism like that). I began to make note of the kinds of crimes the women had been charged with in the past that went beyond prostitution charges, to see where that would lead. I can’t draw any conclusions yet, in part because my approach has been more qualitative and instinctual than quantitative and scientific…

I’m out of time now, but in the future, I’ll start posting some of these research notes up, because I have to type them anyway. Here is a quick sampler of a few police notes:

“Do not let back in town.” (845) [Yes, that’s right, the police used this language a lot. This is probably the most common notation, along with “Not to come back to town.” or “Don’t let back in.”]

“Trouble” (1082)

“She’s nuts.” (808)

“Told to check out.” (515) [Meaning, told to leave town.]

“Tried to roll a guy. Keep out.” (958) [Keep out underlined in original.]

“Trouble Maker” (967)

“Had a dose [gonorrhea].” [Underlined in red.] Also, “Very thin lips.” (607)

“Check alias above for clap.” (492)

“Drunk.” (516)

“If she comes back talk to her about promiscuous calls on telephone.” (712)

“Watch out for this one.” (838)

“Lots of straight slash scars on both lower arms–inside.” (1112)

And here’s an example of a file, with the identifying information blurred out: