Wanton West: Madams, Money, Murder, and the Wild Women of Montana's Frontier


From the time of the gold rush to the election of the first woman to the U.S. Congress, Wanton West brings to life the women of the West's wildest region: Montana, famous for its lawlessness, boomtowns, and America?s largest red-light districts. Prostitutes and entrepreneurs?like Chicago Joe, Madame Mustache, and Highkicker?flocked to Montana to make their own money, gamble, drink, and raise hell just like men. Moralists wrote them off as "soiled doves,? yet a surprising number prospered, flaunting their freedom ...

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From the time of the gold rush to the election of the first woman to the U.S. Congress, Wanton West brings to life the women of the West's wildest region: Montana, famous for its lawlessness, boomtowns, and America’s largest red-light districts. Prostitutes and entrepreneurs—like Chicago Joe, Madame Mustache, and Highkicker—flocked to Montana to make their own money, gamble, drink, and raise hell just like men. Moralists wrote them off as "soiled doves,” yet a surprising number prospered, flaunting their freedom and banking ten times more than their "respectable” sisters.

          A lively read providing new insights into women’s struggle for equality, Wanton West is a refreshingly objective exploration of a freewheeling society and a re-creation of an unforgettable era in history.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Between the 1860s and the early 1900s, Montana's prostitutes could seem genteel when "off-duty," as a young Charlie Chaplin admiringly recalled. They could also be defiantly assertive, like the madam who literally kicked hatchet-wielding radical temperance activist Carrie Nation's posterior out of her establishment. With a well-expressed appreciation for her subject, Morgan (Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush) reveals how the prostitutes who followed the hordes of miners and soldiers paved the way for more traditional female settlers. Beautiful white and black women did extremely well, but unattractive Chinese women were virtually slaves in mining camps staffed by Chinese workers. While briefly referring to the horrific accommodations in underground tunnels for old, diseased sex workers, a dearth of written sources leaves Morgan to focus on the innovative and opportunistic madams who succeeded in the red light districts in addition to legitimate Western enterprises such as brick manufacturing. In spite of prostitution's detractors and harsh conditions, the irony throughout this frank exploration is that these law-breaking women enjoyed property rights and high wages not available to respectable married women of the American West. 8 pages of b&w photos. (June)
Kirkus Reviews

There weren't many career opportunities open to women in the Wild West: schoolmarm, farm wife, perhaps stenographer. However, writes journalist and popular historian Morgan (Media Writing/Univ. of Texas, Arlington; Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush, 1998, etc.) in this entertaining and instructive study, there was always a demand for prostitutes and brothel keepers, and many women naturally drifted into those ancient professions.

Profiling several of these women from the Gold Rush into the early years of the 20th century, the author makes it clear why this wasn't necessarily a bad career move, especially on the management side. In Helena, Mont., the city's 37 "independent, property-owning prostitutes" accounted for 44 percent of the real-estate transfers and sometimes acted as venture capitalists for local businesses; a dozen of them reported that they had bank accounts in excess of $2,500, while "even street whores without capital could expect to earn $223 a month"—this at a time when a skilled carpenter made half that. One hooker-turned-madam even opened a theater that became "a family favorite," while others, mostly immigrants from Asia and Europe, provided financial anchors around which communities of their compatriots formed. Morgan's subject, improperly treated, could easily devolve into a lascivious catalog, but she has an important larger point: The independence of these women inspired the independence of women who did not engage in the sex trade, and it's no accident that women had the right to vote and served in political office in the West well before they did in other parts of the country. The author closes with Montana's own Jeannette Rankin, elected to Congress in 1917, who got plenty done—even if, as Morgan writes, the press of the day "showed less interest in her legislative accomplishments than in whether she was having an affair with Fiorello LaGuardia."

A useful addition to Western Americana and women's studies.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781569763384
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/1/2011
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 944,916
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.24 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

Lael Morgan is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, and the Washington Post. She teaches media writing at the University of Texas–Arlington and is the author of several historical books, including Art and Eskimo Power and Good Time Girls of the Alaska–Yukon Gold Rush.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Sinful Cities, 1863-1919 xi

Prologue: Madeleine: A Self-Made Woman, 1894 1

1 The Summer Women of Helena, 1867 15

2 Butte, the Black Heart of Montana, 1877 29

3 Miles City and the Wild West, 1880 41

4 Last of the Silver Years, 1887 65

5 The Celestial Sex Trade, 1900 83

6 Respectable Purple Paths, 1900 103

7 Reflection, 1900 131

8 The Beginning of the End, 1911 137

9 New Options, 1916 161

Epilogue: The Wages of Sin 179

Major Players: The Women and Men Who Made the Most of a Wild Frontier 197

Time Line: From the Brothels to the Congress 229

Notes 255

Index 297

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 14, 2012

    more from this reviewer


    Lael Morgan is the author of the prostitution classic Good Time Girls of the Alaska–Yukon Gold Rush (1998). In this new book she has turned her attention to early Montana and prostitution and the suffrage movement in that wild and sometimes untamed part of the American frontier.

    This is a well researched and most interesting book. The author presents an objective and candid view of Montana with which few in the Twenty-first century are familiar. Ms. Morgan sheds new light on Montana women during the later 1800s and early 1900s.
    There are a number of important topics covered by the author. This reviewer was particularly interested in the general Montana suffrage movement, the Chinese sex trade, new information on Helena’s famous Madam Chicago Joe, the great western artist C. M. Russell’s connection to Chicago Joe and new revelations about prostitution in Miles City.
    Ms. Morgan has reproduced a number of prostitute and brothel photographs from Miles City. These never before published pictures are a fine addition to the few surviving photographs of Montana’s red light ladies.
    The author has included a very helpful timeline of Montana history titled, From Brothels to Congress. This timeline shows events as they unfolded in the territory and later state of Montana. It greatly compliments the history as presented in the book.
    Ms. Morgan knows how to tell a good story and she has done so in this book. Be prepared for an interesting, enjoyable and lively romp into Montana history.

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