The Sad Life of the Soiled Dove

I remember when I first heard the term, “Soiled Dove.” I knew immediately what it was referring to — prostitutes. In particular, those back-in-the-day prostitutes who worked the men of the Wild, Wild West. It was a seemingly perfect description of them. Women — beautiful, would-be wonderful women who had somehow gone astray and “soiled” their innocence. They’d soiled their goodness, their value as a wife, their futures, and had made themselves into a part of the throw-away society.

There are vintage photos of some of these women that exist in the archives of history. They are “every” woman. They are young and old. They are beautiful and homely. They are thin and chubby. Females living in the West who had no education, no marital prospects. Many had no families to care for them, to love them, and they had no way in which to support themselves, so they began to trade their virtue for food and board. Once that trade had been made; they began to be treated as less than human and many of them began to look at themselves that way. They felt they had no value in society and that’s exactly how society felt about them. Suicide was rampant in their world and mourners for the life that had passed was usually hard to find. For many of these girls, it was turn to prostitution or die of starvation, exposure, disease, or a combination of all three.

There’s evidence that many of them became addicts — turning to drugs to try to turn off the pain they had to endure in order to survive. Psychological pain, along with physical pain, was what they could expect — but psychological pain didn’t leave any visible scars. Physical pain left scars and that would decrease the value of the product. There were actual signs in some of the bordellos/brothels that read, “No beating of the whores.” I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that the sign had to be there or the fact that the “establishment,” those in charge, called the women whores in their own work environment — whores. That’s how people referred to them, that’s how they were treated, that’s how they saw themselves, and that’s how they were going to live and die — as a whore.

The extreme hypocrisy involved in prostitution is mind-blowing to me, as it was seemingly perfectly acceptable to be the “screwer” instead of the “screwee.” Take Butte, Montana in the late 19th century, for example, and its famous red-light district, Venus Alley.

Butte, Montana was home to thousands of miners, mainly copper miners, and the town was chocked full of brothels and saloons. The miners would end the day with alcohol, a little food, and then hit the brothels. It was just part of daily living for the miners. They weren’t married; but they had to have a woman. A woman whom they held in contempt, whom they would never be seen with in public, a woman known to all as a dirty whore, yet, they willingly and eagerly paid 50 cents a pop to relieve themselves. One could see why women would abhor them, especially the “good girls’ of society. But why would the men treat them so badly? The men who were — no doubt — happy to be on the receiving end of what they had to offer. I’ve never understood it.

There’s evidence in the late 1880’s that during the town’s highest mining population, that Butte sported over 70 brothels. One of the brothels, The Dumas, was the most famous in Butte and the longest running brothel in the West. It managed to keep operating until 1982. The upper level of the Dumas was kept clean, in good order, with fine rooms and bedding for Butte’s most respectable and richest men. But the alley level of the brothel was used for the lowest paying customers in town and the conditions that these women had to face day-after-day was appalling, disgusting, and overwhelmingly sad.

Alley-level “cribs” were incredibly small, sometimes with one crib on top of the other, tiny cells packed into a tiny space. This basement level had a series of underground tunnels where men could come and go into the cribs without anyone above ground being the wiser. These cribs were just a bed — dingy and dark, usually a broken-down bed with filthy sheets and blankets, a small table and lamp. The Dumas operated 24 hours a day with the women working in shifts — the girls only getting a small percentage of each transaction. It’s difficult to believe that any girl would willingly go into such a life as a prostitute in the old West but go into it they did. It looked like a living death to me and it’s quite believable that the statistic that I saw regarding their suicide rate is true. It’s said that the rate of these women killing themselves was ten times that of a non-prostitute. There’s evidence that some of the soiled doves of Butte, Montana, got to be quite raunchy in their quest to lure men into the brothel. Time-after-time regulations were put into place in order to try to reign them in, but the brothels always seemed to be able to skirt around them and continue operating. The US Gov’t shut down all brothels during WW II to try to thwart venereal disease, so many of the brothels began selling themselves as “boarding houses” and paying off the local heat in order to stay in business.

As a writer, I would love to be able to go back in time and talk with some of these women, tell their stories. Ask them why they did what they did. Ask them what they thought about themselves and the men they had to service. Was it the extreme lack of education and opportunity to do anything else that led them into it? If circumstances had been different, what would they have preferred to be?

It’s an interesting subject and there is certainly a lot of information on the web about it. If you are ever in Butte, Montana, you can drive right up to the Dumas Brothel, get out and walk around to the back alley and put yourself back into another time. Can you just imagine what your life would have been like had this life been yours?

For more information on the Dumas Brothel:

Robin is a writer/photographer who lives in Montana and happily gets to travel the state to photograph the beauty and document the stories.

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