Our Newsletter to your inbox every week!
“From reckless despair she drifted into the life; it is with determination bordering on reckless that she starts to quit it.”
Josie Washburn’s thoughts on the reformation of a prostitute – 1905
A large wagon filled with fallen angels rattled down a dusty street in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was daylight, but a hard rain obscured the sun. Three-armed sheriff’s deputies walked alongside the crowded vehicle, grinning from ear to ear. Raindrops bounced off the tin badges pinned to their slickers. The drenched passengers huddled together like chickens caught in a storm.
Dignified citizens stared out of shop windows and saloon doors at the public women under arrest that were being paraded through town. Some of the humiliated prostitutes hid their faces with scarves; others hung their heads in shame. Josie Washburn, a pretty, neatly dressed, brunette in the center of the wagon, kept her eyes fixed on the gawking residents. Her pride was wounded, but she refused to give them the satisfaction of seeing that she’d been broken.
The ride to the jail was slow and deliberate. Lightening streaked across the sky, and the rain fell in sheets. As the wagon passed by the bank, two businessmen stepped into the doorframe and laughed at the sight of the soaked women. The insensitive chortles brought the maniacal rage lapping at Josie’s senses to a high flame. At once she was on her feet. “You don’t think we have feelings!” she shouted. “We may be whores, but we have feelings just like anyone else.”
Thunder rolled overhead. Josie glanced around at the stunned onlookers. “You need us to protect the good women here, you say!” She bellowed over the sound of the violent weather. “And you treat us like livestock!” One of the deputies ordered her to “sit down and shut up.” Josie glared at him. He leveled his shotgun at her and pumped the barrel. “Go ahead,” she dared him. “Put me out of their misery.”
Until Josie Washburn was motivated to do so, virtually no one spoke out on behalf of public women. They were talked about, mistreated, and shunned by society, but little understanding was given to why some women were driven to prostitution. Josie’s lone voice and extensive writing on the subject exposed the conditions that perpetuated the profession.
Josie Washburn began working at parlor houses in Omaha, Nebraska, in August of 1871. She was seventeen years old. Born in the Northeast to parents of Scottish and Norwegian descent, she was given the name Helena. Anna Wilson, the first madam the young girl worked for, changed Helena’s name to one that was more suitable for the trade. Historians speculate that Josie was abandoned at an early age and forced to make her own way. Job opportunities for women were limited. Desperation and the threat of starvation led many to the profession.
Anna’s brothel was a home for Josie and the other girls who worked there. For many of them it was the first place they felt they belonged. Despite the dire circumstances, a sense of family prevailed among the residents of the house. Josie stayed at Anna’s for more than eight years.
Josie was arrested numerous times on prostitution charges during her time of employment at Madam Wilson’s. The public humiliation of being dragged into court time after time took its toll on her. The shame she felt for the life she was forced to live overshadowed the devotion she had for Anna and the other women at the house. Unable to continue on, Josie attempted to kill herself using a borrowed revolver. Her unsteady hand caused the weapon to miss its intended mark. She suffered a bullet wound, but it was not fatal. Newspaper reports claimed the shooting was an accident.
A proposal of marriage gave Josie the chance to escape her sad lifestyle. When she exchanged vows with Frank Stone in early 1880, she believed her future had great promise. Stone was an educated man, and Josie was deeply in love with him. For fifteen years the pair drifted from one western town to the next. Frank proved to be anything but reliable. He was bad with money and gambled away large sums. He frequently left his wife alone for months at a time. Josie was devastated by his actions and in 1907 wrote about her disappointment:
A man expects his wife to be an angel under any and all circumstances. The man pledges his protection, care and love for life, and upon these terms the woman becomes his wife, in full confidence that this love is permanent and lasting; in sickness or health she has a right to expect him to be true to her.
The great burden of married life comes to the wife, who has her household duties, and the children to care for, and a thousand and one things to perform which make up the daily routine.
When the husband comes home from his daily occupation, his wife has a right to expect his company during the evening; to her his presence is company, even though he chooses to bury himself in his newspapers.
But she does not receive this consideration. He is absent night after night and often until the break of day, or for several days. When he arrives, he is nervous and grouchy, and throws things around. While he is changing his wearing apparel, he loses the proverbial collar buttons, strewing them upon the floor, and cussing because they are not as large as sledgehammers. A man in that condition isn’t noted for his nimble fingers among other deficiencies. His wife comes to his rescue, fastens his collar, and observes that his breath hasn’t the aroma of violets, nor his blood-shot eyes the expression of remorse; he does not make the effort to hold his temper that he did the collar-button. With a scowl he tells his wife that he has been at a banquet.
He remains at home for a night or two to rest up. Then he goes to another banquet, or club or he is called away from town on a matter of business, or important transactions kept him at the office, or he met some friends at a hotel who detained him; he volunteers this information without any interrogations from his wife, who trembles with fear that something is wrong. When men go out in bunches, they sometimes frankly admit to their wives that they have been out with the boys seeing the sights, but they don’t tell what they saw.
In 1895, Frank Stone abandoned Josie for good. He left her with numerous debts and no viable income. She was forced to return to the type of work she often referred to as the “underworld sewer.” Josie settled in Lincoln, Nebraska, and, after earning a substantial amount of money working as a prostitute, opened her own parlor house. Historical records show that she had five employees in June of 1900. The clients that frequented her business were from all walks of life: politicians and pioneers, preachers and police.
Josie took her job as madam seriously, looking out for the ladies in her hire in much the same way Anna Wilson had looked after her. According to Josie’s memoirs, “A wise matron of the underworld is a woman of many resources and sound judgment, which is gained by experience so severe that you would not believe it possible for a human being to endure.” Josie treated her staff with kindness and respect and protected them from violent men, drug sellers, thieves, and gamblers. “The madam is the best friend a girl has,” Josie wrote in her autobiography. Josie did her best to look out for her boarders’ well-being, but she could not protect them from the “violations” she was sure they would encounter once the bedroom door closed behind them. She believed that prostitutes “lost a bit of their soul each time they entertained a client.” Women new to the profession harbored the misconception that the wealthier a client was the better they would be treated. Josie made it clear that the opposite was true.
“Upon the first arrival of the girl, she imagines that all her troubles will be gone when she becomes acquainted with the rich man, but there is no class of men who are less generous than the rich man when he is sober, although he will spend thousands of dollars for self-indulgence, buying champagne by the case. He will order all that the bunch can drink, waste, and wallow in.
“The girls are required to take a part in the lowest debauchery, for the amusement of this man, for which they are liberally supplied with money, besides the madam’s rake-off isn’t small; through all kinds of confusion she never loses sight of the business at hand.
“After a girl has been through one of these orgies with the rich man, there is nothing left in the line of vice that is not familiar to her. A girl might be in some parts of the underworld for years, and not have the knowledge or experience in vice that these girls have learned under the direction of one rich man, in a week or a month’s extreme revelry.”
Prostitution in Nebraska in the early 1900s was a lucrative line of work, and Josie Washburn’s house made a great deal of money. She and her girls were required to pay large sums to public officials to stay in operation, however. As the madam, Josie was required to pay a monthly protection fee of $14.70 to $29.70. Law enforcement officers varied in the way they collected the payments. Some were satisfied with allowing Josie to submit the payment through a messenger. Others required individual prostitutes to pay the fee in person at the jail. Women who did not have the money owed were thrown into a cell and held there until their bill was paid.
“We always went [to the jail] with fear and trembling,” wrote Josie. “Whenever law enforcement wanted to prove to the public at large that prostitution was not being tolerated, they would load women from various parlor houses into a mud wagon and parade them through town. We regarded this treatment as unjust and cruel, but the effect was to make us more willing to part with our cash.”
The experience of being “held up” by officers of the law happened repeatedly in the underworld.
Opportunities for employment for men were vast. They could take any career path they wanted. Frontier women did not have the same advantages. So, when men chose to own and operate a brothel, Josie was highly resentful. She considered “male-landladies” or “P.I.s” (an abbreviation for pimp) to be the most despicable member of the underworld.
There is one (P.I.) in the city of Omaha who owns the greater share of the red-light district, which is of no small proportions in this city.
This he-landlady leases and controls several alleys, on which he has built rows of cribs, both sides similarly arranged. Each crib consists of two small rooms, about six feet high; a door and a window form the whole front. Each crib has a projecting corner, and a casual glance down the line gives it a scalloped appearance, which is meant to be artistic…
Some of the girls who exist in these alleys are those who have seen years of suffering and are now addicted to dope and liquor. But the majority are the very young girls who are carried away by the excitement….
From these cribs, and the many big houses, is the deriving source of the monster’s great wealth—he who has paid the police and influenced politicians in his behalf for years. His monthly income from this horrible traffic is several thousands of dollars. He has become very wealthy from the pitiful earnings of human beings in debauchery.
Whether spent as a prostitute or a madam, Josie’s years in the trade were filled with degradation and deception. “If one is to be successful financially, they must assume a variety of distasteful roles, lover, confidant and entertainer,” Josie admitted. Big money customers were made to feel like they were the house’s most favorite clients. In truth they considered these men to be worthless.
“We haven’t any regard for him in our hearts, knowing that he has left a loving and truthful wife at home, who is counting the minutes of his absence,” she wrote.
Public women were considered outcasts by churches, and hospitals turned them away when they came searching for health care. “Our women have absolutely no friends outside of their world,” Josie lamented in her journals. “No flood of pity will rush into the souls of good people for our belief.” She was appalled that laws were in place to prohibit the abuse of dogs, but there were no laws at all to protect and care for sporting women.
Josie Washburn retired in 1907 and found legitimate work managing a boarding house. Hoping to educate people about the misery associated with the life of a public woman and the exploitation of prostitutes by ruthless businessmen and government officials, Josie began writing a book. Using the journal entries and notes she had penned over her twenty-seven years in the business, she created a manuscript that described the horrible condition inherent with the social evil. She blamed corrupt men for the continuation of prostitution and noted that no matter what they might say, opponents would never abolish the profession. “As long as men desire the services found at parlor houses,” she wrote, “there will be men who solicit women for such services. Too many men derive wealth and political influence from prostitution to willingly end it.”
Josie Washburn’s attempt to bring about change in the trade went beyond authoring a book. In 1911, she asked Nebraska legislature for funds to build a home for prostitutes who wanted to leave the business. Her request of $100,000 was denied. In response, she countered:
That the underworld woman is not permitted to reform is the firm conviction of all of our people.
This conclusion is forced upon us by the decision of the Christian world, which is that if a woman has fallen, she will never reform, and there is no use to try to help her.
If the men, young or old, who come to us in our castles, houses, cribs, or dives, and associate with us in the sin of the underworld, should be disgraced and branded by the Christian and business world, this would go a long way toward reformation, as the men would try to avoid the disgrace.
Does the Christian man or woman refuse to associate on equal terms with a man who is our associate and supplies the money which keeps your
Not long after Josie was denied the capital for her project, she relocated to Minneapolis and concentrated her efforts on getting her book published. The subject matter of her book made it impossible for her to find a publisher. The male-dominated industry took offense to her claim that the root of prostitution could be traced to men.
Rejection from mainstream publishers only made Josie more determined to see her work in print. In 1925, she invested her own money and published the book, The Underworld Sewer, herself. She dedicated the work to the people of “Village, City, State and Nation, which both consciously and unconsciously maintain the social evil.”
Three years after the book was released Josie moved to Spokane, Washington. All traces of her then disappeared. Historians speculate that she changed her name and started a new life, putting to rest her tainted, pitiful past forever.