Free Minds & Free Markets

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.

Saloons, Prostitutes, and Temperance in Alaska Territory

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.

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  • MJGreen||

    No law at all in Skagway... is that true?

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    You'll help me with the fall?

  • C. Anacreon||

    I like their city anthem:

    Skagway.....Skagway.....Your truck's favorite town.

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    ...combined with invasions by moral and governmental authorities to end the dreams of the men...

    The controllers. The two biggest impediments to liberty in the verse...religion and government.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    On that level, there is no difference. There is a higher level, the government that undertakes sanitation prjects, the religion that preaches spirituality and acceptance. But they are rare, at least more so that the buttinski versions.

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    It's never a very large step to go from telling people how to live to forcing them.

    For their own good, of course.

  • Sam Haysom||

    It's never a very large step to go from opposing efforts to legislate morality to baby whining any time someone suggests moral standards that demand the least amount of sacrifice. People would respect libertarians a lot more if they stopped pretending that it's only legislated morality they oppose.

  • ||

    Oh Tulpy-Poo, you sure do like whining like a little bitch. You really like it. Have you talked to your therapist about that?

  • sarcasmic||

    Just as collectivist retards are physically incapable of comprehending that libertarians do not oppose collectivism so long as it is not coerced, idiots such as yourself are physically incapable of comprehending that libertarians do not oppose morality so long as it is not coerced.

    You call it sacrifice. We call it being beaten and locked in a cage.

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    Hey Sam..

    Suck my free cock.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    And just where, in the account of Gold Rush Alaska, do you find someone just suggesting moral standards? No. It wasn't enough to try to shame the whores, they had to hound them out of town. It's never enough to shame the drunk; there have to be laws that make the act of drinking illegal. And if Prohibition doesn't work, and won't get tried again, then the moralizers will try to sneak up on it by passing drunk driving laws that mean one cannot have wine with dinner and then drive home.

    No, Mr. Haysom. I won't accept your attempt at moral superiority. You and people like you are pharisees and swine. It isn't enough for you to be moral by your lights, or even to preach your morality. You have to find ways to punish everybody who doesn't agree with you. You, the Temperance Unions, the anti-smoking fanatics, the Taliban. All much of a muchness.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Many (most?) here never said that it's ONLY legislated morality they oppose.

  • Winston||

    The two biggest impediments to liberty in the verse...religion and government.

    So freedom of religion is bad then?

  • JFree||

    This process is almost identical to what happened on the frontier West too. And the 'fault' is not anonymous institutions. The 'fault' is that transient all-male populations don't have much of a future on their own. Prostitutes may satisfy short-term urges - but then, as now, they aren't anyone's first choice for marriage and settling down and having a family. 'Violence against prostitutes' is a complete red herring here. Yes it's probably lower than scare stories about it - but it is also of absolutely no interest to anyone other than the prostitutes themselves. They are on their own in defending themselves.

    The issue becomes what happens to 'good girls' who come to a town where every other woman in town is a prostitute and 80% of the population is a young drunk male? When they are the only women in town who are saying 'No' when every other woman is saying 'How Much?"

    That is precisely the environment in which government begins. It is also not surprisingly the environment where women's suffrage actually started too.

  • R C Dean||

    OT, but too good not to pass along:

    Hello Kitty, Minnie Mouse Brawl in Times Square


    $50 on the cat!


    "“I would definitely have tipped extra,” said Anthony Jacobi-Dolce, 23, of Chicago. “And I would bet on Minnie to win because I don’t even know what Hello Kitty is.”"

    yeah, and pizza too.

  • Heroic Mulatto||


  • Viscount Irish, Slayer of Huns||


    So Tom Cruise's son said the following regarding Caitlyn Jenner ridiculously winning the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage:

    "“Really?? Winning the AA award for courage?? Ashton is gonna come out and yell PUNK’D,” Connor posted on June 3. “Don’t get me wrong. Do what you feel like doing and don’t let anyone stop you. But everyone is taking this way too seriously…There are so many more important things that should be talked about…And SO MANY MORE IMPORTANT PEOPLE that actually deserve an award.”"

    He even said some retarded stuff about environmentalism:

    "That’s one of thousands of things that should be of a higher importance than what is currently being gone over…Or what about the fact that our planet is becoming less habitable on a daily basis. Yet the population is increasing at an alarming rate"

    Too bad this was a HATEFUL RANT and Connor Cruise is a TRANSPHOBE:

    "Sorry Mr. Cruise, but what really needs to change is your attitude! For the record, we think the former Olympian is more than deserving of the honor. #TeamCaitlyn!"

    Off to the re-education camps!

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    They have a point. At least Jenner is out, which is more than we can say for Cruise the Elder.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    Seriously, what's the basis of this stuff about Cruise?


    The froth over She-Jenner isn't even nearly as bad as the Idol Worship surrounding Beau Biden

    "Beau Biden, an Iraq War veteran, was also eulogized by Gen. Raymond Odierno, who presented a military award -- the Legion of Merit -- in Beau's memory. Odierno, who served as commanding general in Iraq at the same time Beau was deployed there, called Biden a man of "great character" who could well have gone on to lead the nation.

    Chris Martin, the lead singer of Coldplay, performed at the ceremony, as did soloist Ciaran Sheehan, cellist Jesus Morales and trumpeter Sgt. First Class Roger Blanchard* (I presume related to Terence)

    Vice President Biden and his family, along with a Delaware police bagpipe-and-drum band and a horse-mounted police guard, accompanied the hearse to the church.

    The Catholic Mass follows two days of services for him. Delaware residents and political leaders gathered at the state capitol in Dover on Thursday to pay their respects. A public viewing took place at St. Anthony's on Friday..."

    Legion of merit (check), rock stars (check), grotesque exaggeration of his status as a significant figure of statecraft (check)... what, NO STATUE??

    The Biden's being treated like the Great Political Dynasty of our modern age is hard not to laugh at.

  • ||

    The Bidens are the Freys of American politics. I guess that makes Joe into Walder Frey?

  • Viscount Irish, Slayer of Huns||

    Joe "Walder Frey" Biden with the wife he chose after Caitlyn Stark killed his old one.

  • ||

    "Walder Frey Joe Biden is a peevish old man who lives to fondle his young wife and brood over all the slights he's suffered."

  • Brochettaward||

    Beau Biden was a member of JAG. The guy was a pogue who deployed once, and he gets some special award after he dies because he's the VP's son? An incompetent, bungling VP at that?

    Give me a break. That's a slap in the face to all the guys who went over there and did far more who have since died.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Rand Paul Scares the Shit Out of the Establishment: Exhibit AAQZ

    CNN's latest hatchet job on Rand by proxy through Ron.

    Even the Op-Eds in the People's Daily are more subtle and rhetorically sophisticated.

  • Viscount Irish, Slayer of Huns||

    That first link appears to be about something completely different.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Whoops! But the former still works!

  • Christophe||

    Government is simply the name we give to the prostitutes we choose to jail together.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    Which link do you want:

    The woman arrested for faking cancer in order to get the government to pay for her abortion


    The two Protestant ministers charged with violating Sudanese law by their religious activities, including in one case "distort[ing] the image of Sudan through reports sent to circles hostile to the country so that the information would be used in human rights reports."


    The latest developments in the Deep Dish Pizza Controversy?

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    NOTE: If nobody expresses a preference, I'll do the abortion link.


    Whichever one has the biggest tits

  • ||

    As we learned last night we must do our part to help gather more women into the world of libertarianism, and also to the world of the reason commentariat.

    The term you should be using is gazangas.

  • lap83||

    I greenlighted the Reason calendar as long as you use male models. What are you waiting for?

  • Viscount Irish, Slayer of Huns||

    51% of Democrats support hate speech laws because they are becoming outright fascists.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    "Becoming" he says. When I was at Occupy, a prog Occupier tried to get another Occupier involuntarily committed because she found it annoying that he would interrupt at General Assembly.

    Which was quite bad enough, but when the group could not muster enough outrage or balls to say she didn't need to hang around, her with her quick-dial to the state whenever she thought it was convenient for her, the problem was exponentially worse.

  • ||

    When I was at Occupy

    Go on....

  • Hamster of Doom||

    Hadn't I mentioned that yet? Thought I had. I was at Occupy Denver. This is why Denver didn't have an anti-capitalism march. Not that they didn't try, oh my no, but rules allowed for one person to block, ergo no anti-capitalism march.

  • ||

    I'm pretty sure you hadn't. Care to expand on what you did there? Why you were there? Not interrogating, just curious.


    This is more dangerous than "This one time at Band Camp..."

    I feel like I can claim attendance at OWS NYC. I was working downtown at the time. however, my participation consisted entirely of asking Economics/Finance Pop-Quiz questions to the Occupiers on my way to get lunch every day.

    not a single one of them could explain "loose versus tight money" policy. Interest rates were an arcane tool of capitalist wizards.

  • Winston||

    51% of Democrats support hate speech laws because they are becoming outright fascists

    Libertarian Moment!

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Becoming? The Liberal Intellectual Radical Progressives who gradually took over the Democrat party from Wilson on ALWAYS WERE outright fascists. Bigoted, arrogant, pro eugenics, sure that the Lower Orders couldn't do for themselves, incapable of dealing with large issues (like terrorism) and thus perpetually obsessed with small ones (like coke size).

    Guillotine bait, the lot of 'em.

  • Winston||

    Exactly. It's not like the original French Left and the Communards supported war and opposed civil liberties for their enemies....oh wait.

    from Wilson on

    William Jennings Bryan has a Sad.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    The latter two. I can't muster great outrage over poor people robbing pennies from the government treasury, when the government doesn't care about their buddies robbing billions.

  • Francisco d'Anconia||


  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    First you tried to bookmark my links with the phrase "there it is," but I mocked you so mercilessly for it

    that you switched to "yep." Then I pointed out that "yep" means "sex" in Russian - humiliating you once again.

    Now you're going with a footnote mark, under the naive assumption that I won't be able to mock *that* one.

    Good luck with that -

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    The adventures of Asterisk:

  • Notorious G.K.C.||


  • Notorious G.K.C.||


  • Notorious G.K.C.||


  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    yer out!


    please stop linking to tag team

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    OK, I'll do a song which totally isn't overplayed on the Internet.

  • gaoxiaen||


  • Notorious G.K.C.||

  • GelidusV||

    My RSS feed didn't italicize any of the title. I was seriously let down when this turned out to be a book review.

  • Warrren||

    Moral crusaders can suck my dick!

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I hereby propose a companion award to The Darwin Award; to be bestowed upon women so virulently anti-sex or anti-male that they have effectively removed themselves from the gene pool because no man with a moiety of his marbles will touch them.

    First nominee; Mattress Girl.

    Dishonorable mention; the WCTU

  • Viscount Irish, Slayer of Huns||

    The Gail Dines Award?

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I understand the nomination, but I don't want to be too specific. Do you suppose Darwin had a spinster aunt?

  • Brochettaward||

    There is no women too crazy or too anti-male or anything else that some man, some where, wouldn't hit it.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Google "Andrea Dworkin". I mean, I suppose it's remotely possible, but he'd have to be epicly drunk, and then I don't think it would rise to the occasion.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Nyet yep.


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