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Petaluma’s Past: The ‘Shady Ladies’ and ‘Fallen Angels’ of the Old West

From the late 1840s into the early 1900s, the ratio of women to men in the Old West was very much out of kilter. According to many historians, most western women here in those times were unschooled and over-worked, and the death rate for females in the West was 22 percent higher than for males. Prior to the dawning of the 20th Century, many young women were tragically forced into the prostitution trade as a way of life.

Petaluma, in those days, was not exempt from this “trade.”

Thousands of loggers, gold miners, sailors and ranchers flocked into and through our little river town, to find work or to invest their hard earned money in agriculture, or to start a business. Most of them had left their wives and families behind in the East, until they could start making a living here in the West. Life was tough, and these men welcomed the attentions and favors that were offered by the ‘Ladies of the Night‘. (Think “Miss Kitty” in the old “Gun Smoke” TV series).

Don’t be too misled by that model, however.

Almost all the ‘favors’ came at a price and few of those ladies even had the energy to be friendly.

Prostitution became a thriving industry in California, and the miners, who had few places in which to spend their gold, were prime targets. Early on in the 1850s, the “girls” set up tent shops in the gold fields, or worked the gold country saloons. They sold sex, of course, but also companionship. As small towns, such as Petaluma, developed, the ratio of saloons to other businesses was quite large. In our tiny Petaluma of 1885, there were 17 saloons, and a few of those provided ‘extra services upstairs’’ from those women, who were to become dubbed the “Fallen Angels” of The Old West.

But, by the early 1900s, Petaluma sported such things as electricity, and our first telephone had been installed in The Herold Drug Company on Kentucky and Washington. The second phone installed was for our Fire Department and after that — you guessed it — “The House” on C Street, run by a Miss Fanny Brown, scored the number three telephone in town. In an interview about 25 years ago, one of our early telephone operators (she was 84 at the time) told me that the operators used to let the “girls” call-out of the ‘House’ for free, because they felt so sorry for them.

I’ve also been told by sources that upstairs in the Lan Mart, down the hall from Old Chicago Pizza — as well as upstairs over what is now Seared Restaurant — were located small sparse rooms where many of these ‘extra services’ occurred. These rooms were usually rented-out by the half-hour at a set fee.

Fanny Brown’s “House” was decidedly more refined.

My sources say that the building at the end of C Street, overlooking the Creek — aka the Petaluma River — featured an actual red light, facing the water to attract the sailors from the scow schooners. A girl could make $25 a day working at the House, compared to $25 a month as a proper laundress or shop clerk. From the 1870s to the mid-1880s, prostitution was the single largest occupation for women in the Western United States.

That’s an astounding statistic.

There were different social levels within prostitute society, of course.

Generally speaking, a classy “House,’ ruled by a Madame, was the most desired. The Madame taught the girls manners, dressed them well, usually provided pre-screened clientele and a bit more living comfort for the “girls,” and usually offered contraceptive advice. Fees for service at a “House” were higher than elsewhere, and the more fortunate women usually worked on salaries, although some in lesser establishments were placed on percentages, which forced them to increase client turn-over. Fees, of course, were based upon the popularity of the individual girl and the specific services they offered, and it was a competitive trade.

Below the “House” level was the boarding house or “crib.” These unfortunate women were made to walk the streets or seek a busy corner to negotiate for a client with means. The small rooms they took men to were usually windowless, with only a cot and a shared toilet down the hall. For the rougher clients who refused to remove their boots, the girls draped an oil cloth over the end of the bed. These “crib girls” usually made just enough to live on, and their tawdry lives were cloaked in desperation.

I’ve been told that upstairs rooms in what is now The Linch Building, at 12 Western Ave., provided a slightly larger space for the “crib girls,” with a sink and a window in each room. The women who toiled there were a shade better off, but for sure, this was not a healthy occupation. And those women most often ended their lives in tragedy. They were shunned by polite society and constantly frightened by the prospects of violence.

They had to pay-off the saloon keeper, the landlord and sometimes even the police.

The very large Chinese population of the S.F. Bay Area was quick to discover that the prostitution trade was immensely profitable, and this became one of the saddest stories of the Old West. In 1900, U.S. Secretary of State John Hay introduced a Senate bill called the “U.S. Open Door Policy,” intended to promote U.S. trade with China. I’m quite positive that trade did not include the business of importing young women for prostitution. Few of those enslaved Asian women were able to keep any kind of savings or ever escape the crib, as some of the Caucasian women were able to do.

So, was Petaluma of the Old West a specific destination for prostitution?

No more than any of the other small towns throughout the Old West. The situation can be described by the businessman’s motto, “Find a need and fill it.’ Well, the “need” was certainly here, and exploiters saw the possibilities. That the Fallen Angels’ story could have occurred here in our community is certainly neither surprising nor shocking. The Old West of gold rushes and potential riches was openly decadent, and the “oldest profession” merely followed the gold and jumped into the opportunity.

The well-being of the women, sadly, was always way down the line in importance.

But times do change, somewhat, and by the early 1900s, Petaluma had changed a great deal.

The Trans-Continental Railroad had been bringing more wives, families and prospective brides out from the East. Churches and schools were springing up, the police force and courts were becoming more refined, and the sexual repression of the East Coast Victorian Era was having an effect through-out the West. Young ladies were taught to be retiring and passive, and Petaluma’s once bustling “cribs” and ‘houses’ were gradually driven-out by polite society.

Eventually, our River Town’s surviving saloons became more sophisticated, with new advertising phrases such as, “A comfortable watering place,” “Serving spirits,” “Cocktail lounge,” and “Ladies welcomed.” The business model became aimed at the adult family and, although those once semi-secret rooms above some of our legitimate shops may still be in place, it is presumed by this writer that there is no longer any “hanky” — nor even any “panky” — going on therein.

(NOTE: The current Victorian structure located at the end of C Street is not the “House” mentioned in this column. That structure burned down many decades ago, and the current yellow office building at that location was moved there, in 1981, by this very newspaper columnist.)