Boom and the Great Bust

Sin, sex, and freedom in the Alaskan gold rush


Saloons, Prostitutes, and Temperance in Alaska Territory, by Catherine Holder Spude, University of Oklahoma Press, 344 pages, $24.95

Like many boomtowns of the 19th century West, where the discovery of precious natural resources on ungoverned land caused explosions of economic development and population growth, Skagway, in what was then the District of Alaska, was for a time a virtually anarcho-capitalist republic, a working-class libertine haven, and a seat of women's power. But as with many Western boomtowns, the eventual exhaustion of the resources combined with invasions by moral and governmental authorities to end the dreams of the men who came to Skagway with pickaxes, gold pans, and a thirst for the good life. They also pushed some of America's wealthiest and most independent women onto the streets, into jail cells, and mired in poverty.

After four prospectors found gold along a creek in the Klondike region in August 1896, the tiny settlement that stood 500 miles south, at the nearest port, was almost instantaneously transformed into a city of the demimonde. Over the next four years, some 100,000 men passed through Skagway on their way to the gold fields of the Klondike, and many made it their residence. By 1898 Skagway was the largest city in Alaska, and its population was nearly 80 percent male. Along with all those men came a few enterprising women who cared little about the roles prescribed for them by America and who understood something about the laws of supply and demand.

From Saloons, Prostitutes, and Temperance in Alaska Territory, the independent historian Catherine Holder Spude's book on the rise and fall of gold-rush Skagway, we learn that women such as Pop Corn Kate, Belle Schooler, Frankie Belmont, and Ruth Brown used the proceeds from selling sex to open brothels and purchase substantial tracts of land as well as hotels, saloons, and numerous houses. "The ease with which [they] located, staked, and purchased property," Spude writes, "indicates that prostitutes, like other women of the time, had no trouble procuring real estate in Alaska." Belmont's brothel, housed in one of the largest and most valuable residential buildings in Skagway, was known as "The Cottage" and was decorated with large swaths of red, white, and blue ribbons every Fourth of July. Though the town was overwhelmingly white, and though this was the height of segregation and violent racism in the lower 48, Ruth Brown, an African-American madam, owned the building in which she oversaw her brothel and provided employment to a substantial portion of Skagway's female population, black and white.

Along with many other prostitutes in the 19th century, Skagway's sex workers were the first women to break free from what early American feminists justifiably described as a system of female bondage. Since most high-paying occupations were closed to women, the only legitimate way for a woman to attain wealth was to marry a rich man. And because of the law of "coverture," which granted legal ownership of all property to husbands, even women who "married well" owned little or nothing of their own. But prostitutes who rose to the top of their industry to become "madams" owned more wealth than any other women in the United States, and more than the great majority of men.

Spude does not mention the wages of ordinary prostitutes in Skagway, but in a town in which there were four men for every woman it is likely that they were extraordinarily high. Other historians have found that in the late 19th century the average brothel worker received from one to five dollars for every "trick" they turned, earning in one evening what women who worked as maids, department store clerks, or teachers made in a week. In 1916 the U.S. Department of Labor, concerned by reports that respectable women were being lured into "the Social Evil" by high wages, surveyed a broad sample of prostitutes and found that they earned an average of $40 per week, which was roughly double what white, male, unionized construction workers were making.

Spude also neglects to include an accounting of the employment benefits that the brothel inmates of Skagway received from the madams, which if they were typical of the Western boomtown trade, were considerable. To attract women in such highly competitive markets, where the demand for prostitutes far outstripped the supply of women willing to enter the trade, most madams not only paid their employees far higher wages than they would find in any other employment, but also provided clothing, birth control, health care, legal assistance, housing, and meals. Few American workers of either sex have ever enjoyed such benefits.

The geographical remoteness of Skagway and Alaska's nebulous legal status during the gold rush made for an especially wide-open town that benefited entrepreneurs, allowed for an efflorescence of working-class pleasures, and subverted many of respectable America's central norms. As an unincorporated town in a vast and loosely governed military district, Skagway during its boom was nearly devoid of state apparatuses. The only law enforcement officials in the area were a handful of customs inspectors, and the nearest officers able to prosecute crimes were a U.S. marshal and his deputy in Sitka, some 200 miles away by boat. A group of saloon owners and gamblers did assemble a city council of sorts. It had no sovereign lawmaking power, and according to Spude it "not only tolerated, but indeed welcomed the institutions of prostitution and gambling." Spude estimates that by 1898, just two years after the first prospectors arrived in town, Skagway contained as many as 90 saloons, all of which hosted illegal gambling, and perhaps a dozen brothels. There was only one arrest for prostitution before 1900.

You might wonder about the dangers faced by the greatly outnumbered women, and especially prostitutes, in a town full of frequently drunk and often armed men, with no protection by the state. But Spude found that violence against sex workers in Skagway "was extremely rare" and that, other than fights between prostitutes, "there were only three recorded incidents in which men attacked prostitutes." This can likely be explained by, again, placing Skagway within the context of similar towns during the period. Prostitutes in the wild West confounded not only the Victorian assumption that women were naturally disinterested in sex but also that women could not defend themselves from physical violence. Biographies of virtually all the major madams in the West include examples of armed self-defense against male assailants. Typical was Jessie Hayman, whose wealth amassed in San Francisco allowed her to feed, clothe, and shelter thousands of victims of the 1906 earthquake. Hayman always kept a pistol in her pocket. "I keep my customers close and my gun closer," she liked to say. "It's helped me settle many an argument."

One might expect early American feminists to have looked on these queens of the underworld as pioneers of women's freedom. Instead, they banished them from their seats of power. The leaders of the suffrage movement viewed women who sold sex as living contradictions to their argument that women were rational, disciplined, selfless, and therefore worthy of full citizenship. Suffragists helped establish organizations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the National Purity Association, which led the fights to push men out of saloons and women out of brothels. By the turn of the 20th century, the "social purity" movement was successfully lobbying municipal governments across the country to increase prosecutions for prostitution and to shut down the sites of the Social Evil.

In 1900, the year that the flow of gold down the trails and waterways of the Klondike slowed, activists created the Skagway chapter of the WCTU. Its motto was "For God and Home and Native Land." The Daily Alaskan explained that the group's mission was to create a "pure and wholesome atmosphere sweet and lasting as the incense of the rose…[so] that the children and youth of Skagway reared under its influence may go out into the world morally equipped to fight the battles of life and take their places among the men and women of worth in this great land of ours." Spude persuasively argues that an influx of middle-class women and an increase in marriage rates produced a demographic—wives—that birthed and sustained the social purity movement in Skagway. Husbands of WCTU activists seized control of the city council and commenced the demolition of the demimonde.

The social purity campaign was aided by the rise of government in Skagway and Alaska. The founding of the WCTU coincided with a popular movement to make Alaska a formal territory, with a right to representation in the U.S. Congress and the ability to tax itself. The city's elders, who once had fostered the saloons and brothels, understood that proving themselves worthy of self-rule required the elimination of the drunkards, gamblers, and whores who represented a distinct lack of what the Founding Fathers called republican "virtue." Daily Alaskan editor John Troy, who led the crackdown on saloons and brothels, attacked outsiders who assumed that Alaskans were "lawbreakers and moral cowards…unfit for self-government" and that "because we are as bad as those of the remainder of the United States we should not have territorial government."

In 1901, the city council began passing a series of laws restricting purveyors of vice and ramping up enforcement. Over the subsequent decade, hundreds of gamblers were fined, licenses for saloons were terminated, and prostitutes were rounded up by the newly appointed police force. In 1901, Pop Corn Kate was sentenced to three months in jail for indecent exposure and forced to leave town. In 1902, Frankie Belmont was arrested and fined for "keeping a house of ill fame for the purpose of prostitution, fornication and lewdness," and she fled Skagway shortly thereafter. In 1903, the city courts began fining each prostitute in Skagway on a regular 90-day basis. That year, shortly after the Daily Alaskan identified Belle Schooler as "an extensive property owner of Skagway," she and 11 other women were arrested and fined for keeping a bawdy house. Schooler left Skagway for good in 1905.

The town's few remaining brothel owners were forced to relocate to a one-block-long, fenced-in red light district on the extreme western edge of town. They were finally shut down permanently, along with the remaining handful of saloons, in 1916. In that year the residents of Skagway voted in favor of a referendum that banned alcohol from Alaska. The Alaska "Bone Dry" Law made it unlawful to "manufacture, sell, give or otherwise dispose of any intoxicating liquor or alcohol of any kind in the Territory of Alaska, or to have in his or its possession or to transport any intoxicating liquor." In something of an understatement, Spude concludes that "some of the guarantees about property ownership" that were implicit in the founding of Skagway "were being eroded by the Progressives as they passed moral reform laws."

Skagwayans and Alaskans proved that they were worthy of self-rule, and also demonstrated an appreciation of who led them there. In 1912 Alaska was granted territory status, and in the following year the new legislature granted women the right to vote as its first official act. Both Alaska and women had learned that citizenship comes with the price of freedom.