Tag Archives: scso records

coercion & criminality (morality and sex work part four)

Writers and writing teachers have this saying: you can only get to the universal through the specific. That’s what this post is about: stories of two women in Wallace. The first is about a madam who was convicted for trafficking in 1912, and the second is about a woman who worked in the Arment Rooms for a brief time during the post WWII heyday in the mid-1950s.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sex work and criminality during these past few posts and the discussions they’ve prompted with others in my life. On the one hand: some of the anti-legalization side of the discussion sounds paternalistic, like “you might have thought that you freely chose sex work, but you actually didn’t know what was good for you, girl.” This perspective basically asserts that women unknowingly fall into the trap of prostitution. They are “rescued” and informed that they had been manipulated into thinking that they chose sex work, but in reality they had been trafficked. This language conflates sex work and trafficking. As I have mentioned before, proponents of this point of view often refuse the possibility that any woman could freely choose sex work by referring to all women who sell sex as “prostituted women.”

It reminds me of the moral panic rhetoric leading up to the passage of the Mann Act in 1910. This law made it a federal offense to transport a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.” It was also called the “white slave traffic act,” a phrase that arose during progressive era social hygiene reform. Many vulnerable women who ran into financial insecurity, often immigrants, were coerced into prostitution and felt unable to leave even when not physically constrained because they would bear the stigma of immorality. From the mostly sensational stories you read about this time, it’s unclear whether many of the women were trafficked or just needed a way out. The Mann Act targeted “procurers” (we would now call them pimps) and declared these “inmates of bawdy houses” victims. The law effectively absolved the women of moral responsibility and framed them as “saved.”

In Wallace, there was a madam named Effie Rogan who ran a house called the Reliance from 1895-1911. Here’s what she looked like in 1906:

photo courtesy university of idaho library special collections

photo courtesy university of idaho library special collections

Effie’s brothel was located at 510 Pine Street from 1891-1904, at which point she moved to the triangle-shaped patch of land by the river near where the Depot is today. Like many who were selling sex back in these days, her housemates’ occupations were listed as dressmakers and hairdressers during the 1910 census. She was convicted of trafficking under the Mann Act in 1912.

It usually worked like this: procurers and madams lured women into town with promises of marriage or jobs like dressmaking and hairdressing, met them at the train station, then took away their clothes and raped them into feeling demoralized or “ruined.” It was also the case that many women were told they would have to work off their train tickets and then they entered into what amounted to indentured servitude, seldom able to pay off the original debt added to the constantly accruing room and board debt.

As is the case today, many anti-legalization advocates from back in those days had self-serving agendas. They passed around exaggerated stories meant to invoke pity, generate political influence, and of course they were also rewarded with attention and a sense of self-satisfied pleasure. But there were also those who felt called by God or their conscience to be a voice for others. They believed sex workers (or prostituted women) could not speak (or choose) for themselves. This perspective seems somewhat patronizing to me because as it frees the women from moral responsibility to spare them stigma, it also dismisses or invalidates what some women have to say about their experiences. When we conflate trafficking with sex work, I think it does a disservice to the women who believe and assert that they freely chose and continue to choose sex work.

On the other hand: it’s pretty horrible to imagine madams like Effie and her procurer colleagues profiting off of the misery of desperate women whose lives were so wrecked that many of them drank a small bottle of carbolic acid to die. And this situation continues in different ways for many women selling sex today. To legally qualify as a victim of sex trafficking, you have to be recruited, harbored, transported, delivered, or obtained for the purpose of commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Or you have not yet turned 18 years old.

The 530 police records and rap sheets recording the appearance and background of the women working in the Silver Valley’s brothels from 1952-1973 offer evidence that some of them would have likely fallen into the category of trafficking through coercion. Two summers of doing this research has shown me that the conditions for women in Wallace seem to have been generally positive, but in the rest of this post I want to address the kind of conditions that led to the women finding themselves in Wallace in the first place.

The sheriff’s office files confirm that girls were turned away if their record came back from the FBI to reveal they were younger than 21 years old. Some slipped through the cracks, obviously, but there appears to have been an effort that exceeds due diligence. If the rap sheet showed indications of involvement with organized crime, they were also turned away. Some of them were material witnesses for Mann Act cases in other cities. So in terms of the law, some of the women were trafficked, since they had been caught up in Mann Act cases.

Many women had pimps in other towns. This was often noted in their records explicitly, as was the case for a woman who called herself “Kitty Black,” who was born in Chewelah, Washington in 1919 and found herself in Wallace for four months during the summer of 1956:

shoshone county sheriff's office files #705

shoshone county sheriff’s office files #705

The rap sheet notes that she was first picked up by the police in Spokane, Washington in 1940 and fined $25 for “city vag.” (used by many cities as code for prostitution, but it might also indicate homelessness or drug addiction). Eight months later, we find her in Grand Coulee, Washington, where she is again charged with vagrancy and told to leave town. Most likely, there was huge demand for sex work there during this time, when it was essentially a boom town because of the dam, according to the visitor’s guide website:

In the Grand Coulee, life changed dramatically and quickly once work on the dam began in 1933. Not only did the undertaking of this massive project change forever the shape of the river, but overnight it created towns where nothing but sagebrush, sand and rocks had previously existed. Thousands came to the Grand Coulee looking for work in the midst of the Depression. They worked around the clock to finish the dam by 1942.

During World War II, Kitty finds gainful employment with the War Department:

scso file #705

scso file #705

That’s right, she was a Rosie the Riveter. So were MANY of these women. We should really revise our collective understanding of Rosie the Riveter and think more about what happened to the actual women those images stand in for: many were in the sex industry both before and after the war. After all the patriotism and serving our country rhetoric, we were basically like, “thanks and good luck finding another job that pays a comparable wage.”

In 1945, Kitty is picked up for driving while drunk and grand theft in San Bernardino, California. She makes her way to San Diego shortly thereafter, is charged with being drunk, and serves a fifteen-day term in the city jail. Two years later, she’s back in Spokane where she is arrested for “Inv.,” which is short for investigation and means that she wasn’t charged with anything. (Wallace used this code for regulating prostitution. The rap sheets read “Inv” and then the charge was disposed of with the phrase “fingerprinted, mugged, and released,” or sometimes just “fmr.”) There is a noticeable gap between her 1947 Spokane arrest and 1956, when she comes to Wallace at the age of 37 to work in the Arment Rooms, but her record notes that she admits to having been a prostitute in Troy, Montana during 1955.

It’s unclear whether Kitty’s pimp coerced her into the business or whether he found her sometime along the way. Her file notes her pimp lived in Spokane, which is where she was first arrested, so both are possible. When women have pimps, it often indicates coercion—these are men who are incredibly skilled at targeting women, sometimes by trolling the jails and paying for them to be released. Others target young girls with an unstable family life, financial insecurity, runaways, “rebellious” girls, girls who have gained a reputation for sleeping around, or simply women who were raised in a way that was sheltered. These men know how to find and exploit vulnerability. Then they con their marks into thinking that they are loved so it may feel like a boyfriend kind of situation, or, as I mentioned above, they manipulate the women to feel like they can’t do any better, or they threaten to hurt their kids, or the women for whatever reason just feel like they owe these men something (and here I think the historic power of male supremacy in our culture comes into play as well). And then there is also often outright abuse. Lots of women who came through Wallace’s houses had men’s names tattooed on their bodies. These names were not their fathers or brothers or sons. These names were their pimps branding them.

Okay that’s probably enough for this post. Besides evidence that many of the women had pimps, are there other indications of coercion found in the 1952-1973 SCSO body of evidence?

— Many women who found themselves in the Wallace brothels might not have been actively “trafficked,” but likely felt coerced by their financial situation, like they didn’t have better options. The following other crimes show up on their rap sheets: narcotics, burglary, “obtaining money by false pretenses,” shoplifting, forgery, larceny, drunk and disorderly, “justifiable homicide,” drunk in public, embezzling, robbery, stolen credit cards, writing bad checks or “bogus checks.” (Now here I am doing that thing where I’m conflating a bit between trafficking and sex work, but I also believe economic coercion is a very tangible thing.) It’s really easy for just one disruptive life event to lead even a well-functioning, together person into a downward spiral of addiction or simply to knock them into financial insecurity. In Kitty’s case, it looks like she was an alcoholic after the war ended, and needed a means to support herself starting at least by the time she turned twenty-one.

— I need to look more into this, but there are several women who appear to have entered the sex industry from a place in California called the Ventura School for Girls, where they were labeled “wayward girl.” There is one other reference to a girl from an “orphan home,” but it seems unusual to me that this particular Ventura School for Girls shows up several times… Were they just more likely to end up in the sex industry already or was the school selling them off or providing some kind of pipeline? Was there a personal connection through one of the madams? Here’s what a quick search of the googleverses tells me:

The reformatory was a facility for wayward and sexually promiscuous young women; having a daughter incarcerated there was a great shame for any family. “Young women would go to very drastic measures in order to escape going to the Ventura School for Girls because of its bad reputation,” explains historian Elizabeth Escobedo. “There were women at the juvenile hall who… were swallowing safety pins the night before in order to get out of it.”

— And if you want to know more about Gayle Starr’s story, my former colleague and friend BP Morton dug a little more into that: it’s worth a read.

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: